Music You are Listening to: The Black Keys


Within the last year, The Black Keys transformed from a borderline-garage-band duo consisting of singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer and producer Patrick Carney, to the supernova status by which it is recognized today. Its newest album El Camino landed the band the cover of the January issue of Rolling Stone, and they have since kicked off a sold-out tour. The Black Keys has outgrown its old sound, to the dismay of some.  This evolution has paid off for the band, however, and it seems as if it is just getting started.

Auerbach and Carney released their first album in 2002, The Big Come Up, which had a foundation of simple melodies backed by distorted guitar and haphazard drumming. There were even some pseudo-hip-hop beats that resonated with nostalgic fans of the glory days of nineties rap.

The Black Keys' next few albums, Rubber Factory, Chulahoma, Magic Potion and Thickfreakness demonstrate the band’s steady development of musical style.  The sound that began as esoteric to blues-rock fans was slowly developed for a wider audience. However, they were still too rough for the mainstream. Naturally, the next album Attack and Release was packed with catchy hooks and softer instrumentals. The Black Keys was no longer only played in wooden floored bars on the outskirts of Williamsburg. Its songs were featured in movies such as Zombieland; The Black Keys emerged from the “garage,” moving closer to the edge of commercialized music.

And right as it was nearing the surface, in came producer and artist, Danger Mouse.

While Danger Mouse is best known for his collaboration with Cee Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys is by far his most influential project now. When he took over production, its popularity skyrocketed. Last year, it released the album Brothers, which sounded altogether like a new band. No longer did the whole album sound as if it were recorded in one sitting on a Friday night in someone’s makeshift recording studio; The Black Keys had sold itself to full-out production.  This strategy worked to its advantage, at least in the eyes of its now-multimillion fan base.

So when El Camino was released, the typical tension expected when a formerly underground band goes mainstream emerged.  The inevitable question: Was the band going to revert back to its classic sound that fans loved? Or was it going to soften up even more to increase its fan base and accessibility?

To the surprise of everyone, El Camino did both.

The album begins with the driven “Lonely Boy,” which Carney has admitted is almost too fast to play live. Having a catchy single from the album has its perks, but The Black Keys has lost its  “attitude.” The track sets the mood for the majority of the album. It still has the production level and craft that set Brothers apart from its older work, but there is an obvious throwback to the roughness that made Thickfreakness successful. Like everyone expected, the album is cleaner than The Big Come Up. Nevertheless, I am impressed that it returns fearlessly to the simple high-powered melodies that distanced it from the iTunes top-ten for years.

The Black Keys take the best aspects from most of its albums and combines them to create its first album that can really be seen as identifying. Like its most popular track from Brothers, “Tighten Up,” Danger Mouse takes advantage of the band’s ability to play with a track and really start a song right in the middle. While the first minute or so of the song is quiet, the riff that kicks off the second half harkens back to the powerful guitar melodies that set Thickfreakness apart from preceding albums.

While some called Brothers overproduced, the Black Keys has stepped back into its old ways by leaving moments that sound like “mistakes” to most mainstream ears in almost all of the tracks. Each song has the southern rock roots that early fans loved, but the songs are more diverse and creative, appealing to a wider audience.

Essentially, the band has been able to play both teams: it has attracted new fans while still remembering the old, to some extent.  While each album is another step down the progressive road from grass-roots southern rock to alternative, The Black Keys has not entirely lost its edge.

I don’t think that El Camino is by any means its best or most memorable album. But if it is going to jump through loops to appeal to a wider audience, this is probably the best way to do it. It is no longer looking for a place among critics or listeners like it seemed to be after it released Brothers. It has found what it is good at and met new listeners and fans in the middle. I’m impressed, but not blown away. I’ll listen to the album every now and then riding on the subway or driving back roads in Texas, but I doubt El Camino will stay with me for as long as its older work will.

So yes– there is a chance I will hear a song from El Camino playing outside of Old Navy to the delight of tourist moms. Granted, the album is still exciting and enjoyable. And even though I resent them for becoming yet another band I have to pay more than $30 to see live, The Black Keys has kept my loyalty. Hopefully, it will for years to come.