Get To Know: The Black Keys

Be sure to check out my review of the recent Black Keys show at the Avalon in Hollywood, CA.

Hailing from Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys [MySpace page] are a two-man outfit made up of Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums). Their music is often described as blues-rock, but the Keys stay away from many of the traditional chord progressions that are far too familiar in the genre. They embrace the low-fi, so their stuff generally sounds rough around the edges, but it’s quite clear that the duo likes it that way. Auerbach mixes in his distinct, lived-in vocals with his thicker than thick guitar, while Carney passionately pounds the skins. They are a productive band, having released four albums in the last five years, including Magic Potion [Bullz-Eye review], released earlier this year. In 2006, they also released an EP, Chulahoma [Bullz-Eye review], where they covered six songs by blues hero Junior Kimbrough. They dabble in funk, rock and psychedelia, never straying too far from the blues-rock sound made famous in the mid- to late-‘60s. In short, any beer-soaked roadhouse would benefit from having these 14 songs in its jukebox, but they can all be found at iTunes. To listen to song clips at Amazon, click the link for each album.

Let’s get to know the Black Keys…

“Have Love, Will Travel” – Thickfreakness
It’s a sign of a good band when they are able to take a song they didn’t write and make it their own. The Keys do exactly that with this track, which was originally written by R&B artist Richard Berry and later made famous when The Sonics covered it on their eponymous debut in 1965. This version features a much thicker guitar and a smooth breakdown as it approaches each verse. Every Keys virgin should give it up to this song.

“Till I Get My Way” – Rubber Factory
There’s that thick guitar again. That little riff will carry the song, with Auerbach’s vocals leading us to a brief chorus before jumping right back into another cascading verse. The guitar solo in the middle is short but effective.

“Set You Free” – Thickfreakness
If this song sounds familiar, it probably is. It was featured on the soundtrack to Jack Black’s “School of Rock” and was used in a Nissan Xterra commercial. It’s faster than most of the group’s songs, and Carney really works over those drums, but it all works. There’s a writhing guitar that leads the track into each chorus and the last one is especially sultry.

“She Said, She Said” – The Big Come Up
This is one of those “are you kidding me?” songs. It’s always a dicey proposition to cover the Beatles, but the Keys take the seemingly innocent tune and turn it into a sexy, grinding blues fest. It’s familiar enough to be recognized, but the band is able to put its own stamp on it.

“Strange Desire” – Magic Potion
Listeners will be hard pressed to find a cooler first minute in a song. The choppy guitar goes perfectly with Auerbach’s “oh”s and the first lyric – “I don’t wanna go to hell but if I do / it’ll be ‘cause of you” – makes one ponder what vice he’s singing about. Parts of the initial minute are wisely repeated throughout the song, alternating with some trippy solos, which begs the question – is he singing about a woman or a controlled substance?

“Hard Row” – Thickfreakness
This song actually starts after it starts, when Auerbach comes in with the lines “If you wanna go/and leave your man/go on/I’ll understand,” singing from the point of view of a jilted lover. Both the rhythm guitar and the solos in the back half are terrific.

“Act Nice and Gentle” – Rubber Factory
In the Keys’ third cover on this list, the duo takes the up-tempo, honky-tonk song by the Kinks and slows it down to create a beautiful, sultry head-bobber. This is about as sweet as the Keys can get.

“Heavy Soul” – The Big Come Up
As Carney taps the cymbals, Auerbach enters the fray with a bluesy guitar, and after a few progressions, we hear his grainy voice. This is one of the most blues-laden of all of the Keys’ tracks. It’s a little noisy towards the back, but by this point, you’re a fan, so you can deal.

“The Desperate Man” – Rubber Factory
This song is all about Carney’s beat, but Auerbach’s voice and guitar compliment it nicely. There really isn’t a chorus and the bridge is a little noisy, but it isn’t too distracting. The rest of the song makes up for the occasional screeching guitar note.

“Meet Me In The City” – Chulahoma
This Junior Kimbrough cover is the most straightforward of all the material on Chulahoma, but it has its trippy moments. Auerbach is at his best when sings along with his guitar, begging the listener, “Please…please…please don’t leave me right now baby, right now.” The track closes with an impressive guitar solo.

“10 A.M. Automatic” – Rubber Factory
With its simple, repeating riff and good beat, this track worms its way further into the brain with each and every listen. Lyrically, the song reaches its peak when Auerbach asks, “what about my ways/makes you doubt/all these words from my mouth?

“Girl Is On My Mind” – Rubber Factory
Of all the songs on this list, this track probably has the most familiar blues chord progression and the traditional repetitious lyrics often found in the genre. Still, it’s catchy as hell and it’s got a great breakdown, even if it is a little rough around the edges.

“Just Got To Be” – Magic Potion
The opening guitar sets the tone for the track, but things quiet down a bit as Auerbach starts the first verse. After the lyrics in the bridge – “I got to go because/something’s on my mind/it won’t get better/no matter how hard to try” – he mixes some crunchy guitar with a soulful “whoa!” and “yeah!” before laying down the two-line chorus.

“Midnight In Her Eyes” – Thickfreakness
This track is a little slower to start, but things pick up as the song progresses. Lyrically and musically, the song is at its best when Auerbach sings, “You never thought about goin’ wrong/now you wonder where your man has gone” just before the single-line chorus, which gives the song its name.

The following songs should be a bit more accessible once you’re familiar with the Keys’ distinct sound:

“Your Touch” – Magic Potion
“Elevator” – Magic Potion
“The Lengths” – Rubber Factory

Keys fans – are there any songs I missed?


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