I thought long and hard ’bout what I should say… When I was through it just came out this way! – The Black Keys

Hello and welcome again for another post in my Listening to Music Without Understanding It series. It’s time for another in-depth look at some music, and this week, it’s The Black Keys. 

I was hoping to write something up with them earlier on, in advance of their new album coming out. Then their new album came out a week earlier than I was expecting, and there went that plan! With it out, I wanted to give it some time, check it out, and then report my thoughts. I think we’ve made it to that point!

I also just read the interview of Jack White in Rolling Stone the other day. In it, he kind of called out The Black Keys for riding in on his coat-tails – a fellow two-person rock and blues combo band, coming to popularity after The White Stripes. And I have to admit, I started listening to The Black Keys after listening to Jack White and his many projects. However, the reason I really explored them, and really started to pay attention, is different, and so I will share a bit of an introduction to the band, to why I like them, and hopefully I will leave you interested in them for their own sake!

I’m a Lonely Boy… 

If you look at The Black Keys as starting with their hit album El Camino, then yes, maybe they are just a recently-popular band without a history. After all, you probably know them from this:

And oh man, is that a catchy dance. A catchy song. It’s fantastic, and a great way to start an album. From there, I would actually describe El Camino as a musical. I can almost see it, as the album goes on. Lonely Boy is the opening act, and then it moves on from there, song by song, a narrator telling his stories, moving through a town. Interesting to think of it all as the same characters in the songs, really, as well.

This was not where I first came across The Black Keys, however. That was with their prior album, Brothers.

Unknown, Unknown Brother… I’ll Meet You, Someday…

While El Camino has a feeling of being a whole piece, and is a bit closer to pop, Brothers is solidly a Black Keys album – rock, blues, and with great singles. Maybe closer on the rock scale than anything.

This was my first time hearing them, so when they called it Brothers, I just believed it – believed they were, in fact, brothers. Especially with the heartfelt Unknown Brother – it seems so believably about a lost brother. And maybe it is for one of them.

I still think my favorite song on the album is Howlin’ for You, especially the extended version on the album. There’s an interesting music video, too, where they present it like it’s a movie trailer: 

If you like El Camino, then Brothers is a great next step. And there were enough singles, maybe you know and have and like Brothers as well. If that’s true, then my next recommendation is for you.

We’re not going to taunt you by holding the answer to the end of this record…

Ah ha, here we are at the heart of The Black Keys, for me. Definitely my favorite Black Keys album, and possibly just my favorite album: Attack and Release. This was their release before Brothers, but I found it after that album.

How, you ask? Well, I’d been listening to Brothers, and liked it well enough. But what I’d found and really started listening to was Rome, by Danger Mouse and Danielle Luppi – and with Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. Again with a Jack White connection… just maybe not the expected one. 

So I was looking on the excellent Discography section on producer Danger Mouse’s Wikipedia page, and what I saw just made my jaw drop. Starting from the incomparable Demon Days, it was a pretty great list. I’ve slowly been picking up more of the albums on the list, especially any new ones coming out. It hasn’t failed me. 

Anyway, this is where I saw the listing for the upcoming (at that time) Black Keys album, El Camino. And saw that Danger Mouse had produced one of the songs on Brothers (Tighten Up), as well. And saw that he had produced one other Black Keys album: Attack and Release.

All that is to say, my entry point for discovering The Black Keys and really getting into their music was through Danger Mouse, and his amazing work as a music producer. He’s helped The Black Keys with two whole albums, and more. 

As for the album, it is closer to blues than rock, in the right sort of way. And the last track, which samples music from most of the rest of the album, gets you thinking about those songs, and gets you looping the album, listening again and again, considering the music, the lyrics, the experience.

It is also the one that makes me feel like it is a two-person band, more than the others. They clearly bring in a backup band in some of the later stuff, especially on El Camino. Which is okay, but when they can hit a similar level of complexity with less… that’s when it’s awesome.

When the music is done and all the lights are low…

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn_Blue_(album)

From Wikipedia. Where I also found out that it looks like they worked on this album with Danger Mouse as well…

And so, back to the present. The Black Keys’ Turn Blue has been out about a month and a half now, and I love it. Somehow, I feel like they’ve captured the feeling of these three prior albums, and distilled them all together. Sometimes with bands, you feel like they aren’t changing or doing anything else. Sometimes, you feel like they’ve moved on from the sound you love, or vice versa. But to harness all of your sound, to bring it all back together into a whole? That’s rare.

However, I don’t know that Turn Blue would be the best place to start with The Black Keys. It’s a synthesis, but for a synthesis to make the most sense, you have to see what came before. Brothers or El Camino would be a much better jumping-on point for this band.

As to their earlier work, I get quite a bit of it fed to me on Pandora. It’s much more raw, louder music and quieter vocals. Maybe garage is the right word? I tend to like it, but I don’t know if I would like a whole album of it. I don’t have early White Stripes either, for similar reasons. 

So there you have it – a bit of stroll through the work  of one of my favorite bands. Hopefully I gave you some thoughts on the band, and maybe you’ll explore them more. And hopefully, I showed what has ended up as my second point: they’re not a White Stripes clone.

@compgeeksdavid blogs at Sourcerer about music and comics. His main blog is Comparative Geeks — you can check out his other work there!

20 thoughts on “I thought long and hard ’bout what I should say… When I was through it just came out this way! – The Black Keys

  1. Lonely Boy is one of my favourite videos from the last few years. So simple but it works with the great song. Love that album. I had lost a lot of faith in today’s music but the Black Keys are one of the current artists who are changing my mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed! The Black Keys are making some of the great music of today. Of course, they’re doing that with sounds that harken to the past…

      If you liked El Camino, I really do recommend checking out some of the other albums I mentioned in the post – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, I’m going to have so much to say here. First, The Black Keys are one of my favorite bands. I now can probably accurately say I’m a groupie of theirs! I too discovered them when Brothers came out. They were opening up for Kings of Leon and when I heard them play live I was blown away. I went home that night and started going through all their songs on ITunes.

    Second, my favorite song from Brothers is “These Days”. It’s a beautifully tragic song. And it’s the song that made me want to start writing again.

    Third, Danger Mouse. He’s a genius. I need to do what you did and go through his work and download anything he’s touched. I’m also a huge fan of his band Broken Bells. Another one of my favorite bands!

    Fourth. Jack White. Another musical genius, in my opinion. Insane talent.

    Fifth, I also loved Turn Blue. I wrote a post about it as well. And I completely agree with you, it is kind of a melding of their most recent albums. My favorite right now is “Waiting On Words”, but it’s the kind of album that I’ll rotate to a different favorite in a few weeks and so on.

    Sixth, Jack White may be a genius, but he’s also kind of an ass. The Black Keys are successful in their own right, with or without the existence of The White Stripes. I don’t know if you’ve seen them live, but they put on the BEST live performance I’ve ever seen. Especially when it’s just the two of them on the stage. Especially if it’s outside or in a smaller venue.

    Seventh, sorry for the crazy long comment, but I get excited talking about this stuff…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, you just sent me on a reading journey. Started with your Turn Blue post and moved on through your Broken Bells posts:

      Danger Mouse is the best, I love how he seems to be able to find and develop talent, the way he approaches music as art. So let me start there, with some recommendations. I will likely end up doing posts about a number of the below, but whatever, it’s recommendations time!

      If you haven’t heard Rome yet, start there. It’s Danger Mouse making a Spaghetti Western album, with Norah Jones and Jack White on vocals. It’s amazing. You may have heard “Two Against One” or “Black.”

      Then, if you like Norah Jones on Rome, check out her “Little Broken Hearts,” produced by Danger Mouse. I haven’t really gotten into any of the rest of her music, but I love this album. The song “Miriam” is so very chilling, and not like any other song I’ve really heard.

      From there, I dived into some of the new albums coming out that he worked on, with bands I hadn’t heard of. Electric Guest’s “Mondo” and Portugal. The Man’s “Evil Friends.”

      We’re seeing the Broken Bells in August and there isn’t a band I would rather see perform live – although close seconds include the Black Keys and Jack White…

      But okay, this was about the Black Keys. I love how you talk about “In Our Prime” as the soul of Turn Blue – I’m hooked on that one right now. But overall for me, it’s an experience, it’s a whole. The whole album. The Black Keys tend to do that for me with every album.

      Where would you recommend I start with the Black Keys’ earlier work? As far back as I’ve gone is Attack & Release, which is oh, so good.

      Oh, and I challenge you to listen to El Camino as a musical, with each song as a scene. Just to see what you think 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the Danger Mouse recommendations! I will definitely be checking those out! And I do vaguely remember the Jack White/ Nora Jones collaboration but I wasn’t aware it was Danger Mouse producing…

        We just got tix today to see Broken Bells in October. I will be anxious to hear about your experience after you see them.

        As for older songs to look in to: From Magic Potion, I love “Your Touch” and “Just Got to Be.” From Rubber Factory, my favorites are “Girl Is On My Mind” and “Stack Shot Billy” and “Act Nice and Gentle” (a remake of The Kink’s) and “The Lengths” and “10 A.M. Automatic”. From Thickfreakness, “Hard Row”. And then, one of my favorite songs ever is off of Dan Auerbach’s solo album, “Heartbroken In Disrepair.” It’s awesome.

        And I will accept your challenge. After I check out the Danger Mouse recommendations I will put on some headphones and listen to El Camino again. I will view it as you said, each song as a scene. And I will report back. Although this may take some time since I have three kids home for the summer who keep needing food and clean clothes and stuff! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm the most recommendations are from Rubber Factory… may have to check that out first! Oh, and Pandora has definitely played “Heartbroken In Disrepair” – it’s great! I may have to get Keep It Hid first!

          But yes, start with Rome. And you’re welcome 🙂


      • What I am finding is that the genre-makers in music tend to call all the good music “alternative rock” these days.

        Oh, I guess I should insert myself into that construction… they label all the music I like as “alternative rock.”

        Which is to say, looking at the iTunes page for Alternative is a nice starting place 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! You know I can’t resist a chance to talk about The Black Keys! And then he had to throw Jack White and Danger Mouse in there… my head almost exploded!

        And it’s never too late to get into the music. My husband had no knowledge of any music past 1990 when we met and now he’s a bigger “groupie” than I am! He tells everyone that if it weren’t for me he’d still be listening to Keith Sweat and Full Force (do you know who they are?) I think you’re a little younger than me and my husband so maybe you didn’t get to experience some of the earlier cheesy R&B music of the late 80’s early ’90’s. But now he gets even more excited about going to a good concert than I do! I feel like it helps keep us young… even though we’re achy and tired the next day 🙂


        • I’m not sure at all that I am younger than you.I think there are only a few years difference, either way. I started 1st grade in the 70s. Voted for Jimmy Carter in my first Weekly Reader election (remember those?) And yes, I know who they are (Keith Sweat, lol).

          I’m somewhat familiar with Jack White and various projects of his, but not Danger Mouse or TBK. I’m kind of in your husband’s boat. Most of what I listen to is pre-1995.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Then I have a chance to change even the editor’s mind – this music series is indeed going to be a treat!

            And I suppose I am the young one of the bunch of us. But that doesn’t necessarily make me music literate in recent music! It’s taken work and exploration 🙂


          • So we must be around the same age, I’ve gotten to the point in life where I seem to be older than everyone all of a sudden. (Except my husband, he’ll always be five years older than me. And I never miss a chance to point it out!) When I was in 1st grade I got into heated debates on the school bus over Carter vs Reagan…

            Also, I don’t know if you remember a post I did and I had the song “Angel and the Fool” and you said you really liked it? That was a Danger Mouse collaboration…


            • I’m at about the same place. Every time I shave my beard and grow it back, it gets a little more gray. The Carter-Reagan thing is one of my earliest political experiences. I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for ages.

              I do remember that song, vaguely, but not til you reminded me, and wouldn’t have known it was Danger Mouse unless you’t told me so. I remember liking it, though.


  3. Reblogged this on DBCII and commented:

    The latest in my music series, Listening to Music Without Understanding It! In this post, I showcase The Black Keys, one of my favorites. It also sparked quite a bit of discussion and music recommendations, so check that out if you are so inclined!


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  7. Pingback: I thought long and hard ’bout what I should say… When I was through it just came out this way! – The Black Keys for Throwback Thursday – Comparative Geeks

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