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Discussions: The Black Keys

By Andrew Bailey & Kerri O'Malley; August 13, 2012 at 8:31 AM 

The Black Keys

Andrew Bailey and Kerri O’Malley converse about The Black Keys… and a lot more.

ANDREW BAILEY: Have you ever had a conversation with someone that just keeps popping back into your head, specifically all the points you wish you’d made or examples you wish you’d given? Because that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to talk about The Black Keys: to get some of those thoughts out. I should preface my end of this discussion by saying that I love The Black Keys, but it’s a love that has really changed a lot in the last year or two. I’m guessing you’re a huge fan as well — maybe even a diehard — or else you wouldn’t be doing this with me, right?

KERRI O’MALLEY: To answer your first question… YES, and usually I try to find a way to end up back in the same argument with a different person just to make my finer points. A tip of the hat to you for venting in a less confrontational arena!

Of course, I’m already curious about what shoulda-coulda thoughts you have about the Keys, and who was arguing against them. What’s not to like? And what burning talking points stuck with you? Let’s get into them!

I’m definitely a fan — the only album missing from my arsenal is the first, The Big Come Up. But the strangest part about this band for me is that, while I have a lot of love for the Black Keys and their whole throwback to blues-infused rock music, stripped down from Zeppelin or Stones heights, this band never seemed too cool. They never seemed like they were doing this for anything more than to make music they liked, and they still don’t. They found a sound and stuck by it, steadfast.

Because of that, their recent success (which I assume is part of your changing feelings) never felt like a betrayal or, worse, pandering… at least to me. I like how upfront Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been in recent interviews about El Camino, saying all they wanted to do was make some faster songs that would be more fun to play in an arena, now that they’re selling out arenas. The Keys have a weird, almost lazy quality about them that transcends trend, allowing them to roll with the punches better than projects that elevate their music to holy heights. They’re the girl next door of rock bands; the nice boyfriend that doesn’t take much work — whom you might cast aside only to later remember as perfect. The band definitely isn’t forgettable, but when I think about them in comparison with other two-piece blues-rock acts that came out around the same time, like The White Stripes or The Kills, I feel like their jeans-wearing lack of drama really starts to stand out.

What does your relationship to the Black Keys look like? Do they call your momma “ma’am”?

ANDREW: Interesting. You kind of brushed up against all the things I wanted to talk about in one fell swoop.

First things first: I’ve always liked them for the exact reasons you mention. I like that they’ve sort of revitalized an older style of music without trashing it up, I think they’ve done so without being pretentious about it, and I do feel like they’ve avoided a lot of the drama that tends to come with “rock bands.”

Now, you mention El Camino and how they’ve been very honest in interviews about wanting to make fast, fun songs, but that’s not all they’ve been honest about. They’ve also been fairly honest about turning a profit from their music, a process of commercialization that really started with Attack & Release and then magnified with Brothers. And I love that honesty. It’s so refreshing to hear a band say that part of their drive — maybe not the biggest part — is making a living. I hate the term “sell-out.” I hate when fans get mad because their favorite band sells a song for a commercial or starts using functional studio recording equipment. Isn’t there a line in The Dark Knight about not utilizing your talents for free? I’m glad they make money off their music because they deserve it, and I’m glad they’re pretty honest about it because it’s usually transparent to fans anyway. Power to the Keys.

But over these last two records, Brothers and El Camino, I’ve really felt my interest wane. They actually came through my neck of the woods last summer for Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest — they were headlining — and I didn’t even bother to get tickets. Free tickets. I’d seen them at Bonnaroo the year earlier and, while they put on a good show, I just felt like I didn’t need any more Black Keys in my life. Like, those two albums, they just didn’t feel necessary, if that makes sense. Those two albums amounted to 26 songs in a year and a half and even though every one of those songs is catchy and perfectly fine from every objective and subjective metric I can think of, it just felt to me like they released 26 of the exact same track.

And that’s kind of how I feel about them now. I can’t really even listen to their older stuff because it all sounds so similar to me now. Or maybe not even similar, but certainly over-saturated. And it’s great music; it’s not like they are the only band that has found a groove and stuck in it. I wish I could throw on The Rubber Factory or Attack & Release once a week like I used to. But I keep thinking how I wish they’d take some of their cash and go on a nice vacation for five years. No Black Keys, no solo albums, no Blackroc, no touring. I also realize that’s totally selfish and unrealistic, but that’s my gut reaction at this point. It’s a love/hate thing, you know?

KERRI: I agree with your take on the “sell out” thing, and am similarly glad that the Keys have just come out and said it — again, it’s part of what makes them… them. And I also absolutely understand and echo your sentiments about the last two albums. Some of those songs are killer. When I twirl my radio dial and “Gold on the Ceiling” clicks through the static, I stop and I rock. But that’s kind of the point — they’re not memorable or great albums. Instead, they’re great songs — “Tighten Up” deserved all the recognition it got; “Everlasting Light”; “Howlin For You”; “Little Black Submarines”; “Lonely Boy” — that sit inside otherwise forgettable albums. All those radio hits — the Keys’ first radio hits, really, aside from the college radio love — make a big impression, but the albums sort of peter out after them.

For any other band, this would be normal. But for the Black Keys, it’s a totally new concept.

So I think you’re getting right to the heart of the Keys dilemma when you say it felt to you like they’ve released the exact same track over and over again throughout their career. Whenever I think of the Keys, I think of a wall of sound that is absolutely the same, Their albums are definitely all about riding a single mood, not breaking new ground or create a varied experience. It does all sound the same, feel the same and yeah, it pretty much is the same. Looking back before Brothers, no song on any album is radically different from the next. Probably one of the most what-was-that moments of the Keys’ earlier career could be “I Cry Alone.” But it’s the combination of songs, the construction of this unified great sound, that made their old albums great — they almost seemed to have purposely avoided making “hit” songs in favor of muddy-ing the waters, swirling everything together into one long jam session.

So I guess what I’m saying is that all the similarity is what they do best, and definitely on purpose. Could their latest albums have been better? I think so. But would we have ended up with these great singles that way? Not sure. It’s almost like those are spikes in a heartbeat, registering at a lower level than their normal albums, which usually hit a higher quality but lack stand-out tracks. … Did that metaphor make any sense? Haha. It’s science, I swear!

Side note: Now that I’ve already mentioned it, “I Cry Alone” is probably one of my all time favorites. Auerbach’s voice stands out so clearly in that number, breaking away from the normal fuzzed-out “aw” that rips so closely along with his guitar, it often becomes lost and entwined. I feel like he’s a pretty under appreciated singer, probably because he’s usually so buried and kind of working in a limited southern-nasal-mumble twang that’s so familiar from the rock of yore, but he adds so much soul to each track.

ANDREW: It’s funny you mention “I Cry Alone,” because while I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite songs (though Thickfreakness is probably my second or third favorite album of theirs), it is certainly one of those songs that reminds me again that as many of their songs may sound the same, they still have a bunch that break from the norm. And I’d certainly agree that it’s one of Auerbach’s better vocal performances. This is probably an obvious comparison because of the way it starts with the lyrics “my girl, my girl,” but it’s a very Lead Belly-esque song. It’s a lot more straightforward blues than blues rock.

Here’s what I’m curious about: where would you like to see them go next? When they put out Attack & Release, it was a huge deal because they were working with Danger Mouse, which meant they were leaving the dirty production of their earlier stuff behind. Brothers and El Camino are the albums where they really ascended to the mainstream and started writing “hits.” So what’s the next progression for them? Do you want them to go out and add more full-time members, write an acoustic album, or throw all their equipment into an incinerator and start making dubstep on Macbooks?

KERRI: Lead Belly, Son House… it’s very bare and bluesy, but still has a lot of tension, something that those washed-out recordings sometimes lack.

Progression? The Keys spit in the face of progress! I jest, but honestly, the Danger Mouse thing was a leap, but it wasn’t a huge leap, and I’m sure any change for them at this point would be absolutely incremental. Though I don’t know….it’s verry possible that they could keep going down the path those singles I listed above began. Clearer vocals, upbeat tempos, leaving sad feelings behind for less angst-ridden lyrics. They seem to be having a lot of fun in the mainstream — their “Howlin for You” video was awesome, and they have embraced the commercial aspect wholeheartedly without selling out or patronizing fans, like we said before. I doubt that they’re worried about staying popular, but I could see them putting out more hook-driven singles than they used to back in the good ol’ days and sticking where “Tighten Up” brought ’em. Whatever that means, since their new singles still make sense within their old stuff in a lot of ways. Can you put your finger on the difference?

Also, I think you might actually get your wish — I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a few years before we heard another Keys album. The band’s built to tour, but it is just the two of them, and they are going pretty hard now despite the fact that they lead “grown up” lives. I could see them sort of lining their pockets and then taking a bit of time off, possibly going back to something crunchier afterwards.

But ultimatley, yeah, I doubt they’ll really change their sound while it’s still working for them. In a way, that’s a sad thought because, like you said, it’s getting monotonous at this point, though I really think the singles I mentioned before are all very different from the usual Keys material. Maybe they’ll travel a bit further down the path of variety? But then again, how much have similar-ish band the Kills really changed? And didn’t everyone hate Icky Thump? Is it possible the Black Keys have literally found the only formula that works for a two-piece rock band?

Also, now I’m curious: what’s your first favorite album?

ANDREW: One thing I’d really like to hear them try, and I’m not sure if it would be good or bad, is gospel-type choirs as back-up singers. I mentioned that to someone recently with my tongue in my cheek, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it sounded. They’ve already started using back-up singers anyway, but I’d like to hear them do some Spiritualized-type stuff with it, where the vocals are huge and integral to the song. Like, “Gold on the Ceiling” uses backing vocals and they’re a big part of the song, but I don’t feel like they’re necessary.

I think what’s more likely is another Blackroc project or something along those lines, where they’re just sort of supplementing their normal output with little side projects here and there. That way The Black Keys as a brand remain in tact without any risk of alienating anyone.

Anyway, my favorite is Attack & Release. I love the crunchy, garage-y aesthetic of the stuff before that, but there’s something about Attack & Release that makes it stand out to me (even beyond the obviously improved production). I feel like it’s a subtle album, whereas Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness, my other two favorites, are more in your face. What’s your favorite?

KERRI: Hmm that is an interesting proposition… the kind-of gospel of “Gold on the Ceiling” is pretty sick, and I could definitely see them experimenting more with that. It would be in line with the blues they’re into, but oddly more pop at the same time, which seems to be where they’re aiming anyway. Pretty natural choice there, Andrew.

Did they do any other side projects aside from Blackroc? I remember last year there was a fake leak about Blackroc 2, but I thought they came out and pretty definitively said that wasn’t happening. I don’t recall anything else on the side, but I could be wrong. I’m more inclined to think they’d take a break than go too far into side project territory. Their side projects would taint their brand no matter what, and I just can’t imagine them wanting to do anything so far-fetched they couldn’t call it Black Keys… damn, I guess this Discussion is evidence that I think they’re pretty boring…wait, let’s go with predictable. Comforting. Simple. A return to good-ol rock music. All of these are kind of the same thing, right?

Attack & Release is a really great album — listening through, it is definitely a departure from their early stuff and there’s this kind of weird, haunting quality running through all of the songs. Eerie — a more lasting effect than their other albums — and yes, subtle. I’m hard pressed to pick a fave, but I think you’ve named my top three already, I just might reverse the order! Choosing between Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness is like choosing between vanilla and vanilla bean to me… they’re both so freakin’ delicious. Remember when “Set You Free” was in School of Rock? And hardly anyone knew who the Black Keys were?

ANDREW: Other than Dan’s solo album, which sounds like a softer Keys record (but is fantastic still), I think that’s all they’ve done. I feel like they’ve done some producing as well, but I can’t remember if that’s accurate. That seems like a logical next step for them too. You have to imagine that they’ve been a big part of the production process as their sound has “grown up.” But honestly, aside from a select few guys and hip-hop, I don’t get too excited about producers. Like, Jack White will apparently produce anything for anyone at this point, but he’s not turning the Insane Clown Posse into good musicians, you know?

You know what might be kind of cool? This just popped into my head. The Black Keys teaming up with The Roots. It’d probably end up sounding a lot like Blackroc anyway, but the potential is pretty significant. You’d have dueling drummers, a full band, you could do hip-hop songs with bluesy, soulful verses (or vice versa). It’d be like that rumored Modest Mouse/Big Boi team-up, except a little bit more predictable (there’s that word again).

Have you ever had the chance to see the Keys live?

KERRI: Haha oh god — the Jack White/ICP thing is still a sore spot for me. Let’s hope the Keys never go down that path. Yeah, producing is where great acts go to become near-dead dads of the next gen, and usually the projects they pick are not that exciting (over generalization alert).

I’ve never seen them live, no. What’re they like? And have you ever seen them in a festival setting? I’m just wondering what that kind of crowd is like.

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