By R. David
Published December 6, 2011
I spend a lot of time complaining about the sorry state of rock and roll these days. It’s not that there aren’t great rock bands out there, its just that radio and the music industry have become so fragmented and so afflicted with an ADD mentality that no good, old fashioned rock and roll seems to stick (if it gets any airtime/attention in the first place).
So I should embrace a band like The Black Keys. Essentially a two-man garage band making straightforward guitar and drum driven rock and blues, The Black Keys have garnered a following too large to continue to dismiss simply as “cult” (thanks in large part to last year’s Grammy winning breakthrough “Brothers”).
But it has been easier for me to respect them for providing R&R-starved types with something they crave (talented, no-gimmick traditional rockers who write their own songs and play their own interments), than fully embrace them. For one thing, like a lot of bands who have been quietly paying their dues and growing their fan base under the radar, TBK have a core fan base that tends to elevate even their most pedestrian work to classic status and turn their noses up at newbs who are inclined to jump on the bandwagon since becoming commercially successful. Not TBK’s fault per se, but it makes evaluating them objectively, especially in circles that have already deemed them to be some sort of Second Coming, a futile effort. But let’s be real here, Black Keys die-hards: As catchy and/or brilliantly arranged and conceived as some of their songs can be, TBK seem to refuse not only to break any new musical ground (which is fine; a great genre band is still a great band), but to venture outside of the comfort zone of the sound they have created.
And that is the main – and perhaps only – issue I have with TBK. Many of their songs are completely indecipherable from one another. Their latest album, “El Camino” is proof positive that these guys have settled comfortably into a sound and style that works (for their fan base anyway, which only continues to grow) and they aren’t going to risk messing with a winning formula by venturing too far outside of their comfort zone. That seems odd though considering terms like “imaginative,” “experimental”, “fusion” and “crossover” are constantly being used to describe their music.
Musically, The Black Keys are essentially a funkier version of The White Stripes. They have a similar stripped-down, dirty, rough around the edges, unfinished, meant-and-potatoes, rock-jam sound. But where The Stripes would rather burn the house down with thunderous drum beats and wailing guitars, The Keys inject some R&B flavor and technological manipulation to their song’s productions. Its all very listenable – interesting even – but it also quickly becomes a very rote, similar listening experience that all but fades into the background. And great background music is not something most bands aspire to be.
Musically “El Camino” basically picks up right where “Brothers” left off. And why not? Again, if it ain’t broke, these guys aren’t gonna fix it. And though I say that somewhat condescendingly, I honestly don’t blame them, nor would I expect any less from most bands. And I like a lot of “Brothers” and still revisit those songs frequently. The problem with “Brothers” – and its the same with “El Camino” – is there are only a handful of standout tracks. Sure, it all sounds fine as a whole. I could listen to either disc all the way through at any given moment and be perfectly content. But with the exception of a few tracks on both, the music literally dissolves into itself. The album is like a stew and the songs are individual ingredients that have become so boiled together that you can no longer tell them apart individually.
“El Camino” has received some good notices for beefing up the guitars, but personally I find “Brothers” to be not only more “rockin'” but also the more interesting listen. “El Camino”, while not without the requisite moments, feels like it has been comprised of a lot of leftovers from the “Brothers” sessions: similar sounding tunes that didn’t make the cut the first time around. “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Run Right Back” are fun and infectious rockers that rank with the better stuff on “Brothers”. “Little Black Submarines” is positively Zeppelinesque with its sensitively sung, musically minimalist first half that erupts into a wailing guitar crescendo. Less interesting is song like “Money Maker”, an obvious guitar rocker with lots of studio trickery that The Keys seem to churn out in their sleep at this point. “Sister” is a good example of The Key’s ability to inject a bit of funky vibe into their songs, but like “Money Maker” the song is simply too much part of the band’s formula to leave an impression. It’s at about this point that “El Camino” basically runs out of steam. The rest makes for a perfectly enjoyable listen, but the band has already played their best hands. The rest is just similar sounding music that does nothing to force the listener to sit up and take notice.
In fairness, it’s clear The Black Keys are all about musicianship. They aren’t shooting for profundity or breaking any new ground lyrically. They simply like to play and create. That passion and joy comes across plenty. But while technically proficient, they lack any sort of firery excitement.
The Black Keys have all the right musical chops, but they need to figure out how to take what they do to the next level. Their music is good enough to make me wish it were better. B-
Key Tracks: Lonely Boy, Gold On the Ceiling, Little Black Submarines.