I've been listening to The Black Keys since about 2003. Since then, there has not been a period where I have not had their CD's in my car or their MP3s loaded on a USB stick or on my phone. No matter what kind of music I'm in the mood for, there's always room for them in the mix. No matter how eclectic my musical tastes are, I usually come back to the blues in one form or another. And when I say blues, that's not to say it has to be a pure, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters type of thing, although that could be part of it and often is. What I mean is something that isn't quite as definable. It's the heart and soul that can be traced back to blues (and further back to African traditions that also show up in Cuba, but that's for another post). It's just a feeling that can be found in everything from the most obvious examples in rock to Mowtown, Staxx, and everything else you can imagine, including hip hop. In the Black Keys, it's front and center. I've heard them evolve their sound in the last 8 or 9 years from gritty electric garage blues to classic style R&B and now to full blown 70's style rock. Every step of the way, the feeling is there. The rawness, the heart, the soul. These guys understand the music they are playing in their gut, where it matters.
Last year, I was a giddy school girl for weeks when Brothers was released. I had a chance to see them live right before the album came out, before they started bringing in a bass and organ player. They played mostly older songs from the first 3 albums that night, and it remains as the best show I've ever been to. Once Brothers came out it was different from everything they'd done before, but the straight ahead R&B they were playing was exactly what I wanted to hear. Now, they hit me with El Camino, which is completely different yet again. This time it's a pure Rock (capitalization intentional) album. I think the era they are influenced by here is the 70's, but then that's a pretty wide net to cast too. There is some T Rex, some Zeppelin, Stones, some Blind Faith, maybe even a little Kiss. But in the end, it's all Black Keys. There's something that makes this transcend it's influences. It's not nostalgic (and I hate nostalgia, so that's important). These just happen to be songs that are following certain traditions of rock, respectfully. There's no reinvention of anything. They are just well crafted, fun songs. It's rock, but it's got soul. And that's what I respond to.
I could go song by song, talking about what makes each one work, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. What makes it work is that it's about feeling this music. I think that was the intent all along. They brought Danger Mouse in co-produce with them on this album, and that dude knows how to make things have feeling (see his album Rome). This album has some pretty deep bass. Bass works on a frequency that you feel more than hear. That's no coincidence. I will say, to keep with the general theme of this blog, that The Black Keys give me chills when I hear them. On El Camino, this happened several times, most notably with the song "Sister," which has an almost disco groove to it, and a chord progression that is so simple I wish I could wrap my head around it. I don't know what I responded to in the song, I never do, but I did. I just hope I have the chance to see them perform these songs live next year.Preferably in a small place, kind of like this last clip.