Review Summary: The Black Keys: Untamed.
It’s easy to forget that before the co-producing credits of Danger Mouse, the MTV video awards, and the radio airplay, that The Black Keys were once an unknown, gritty blues band that self-recorded and produced entire albums out of their own basement. Flashback to 2003, and the band was a mere year removed from their well-received debut The Big Come Up. While the positive reception served to increase their profile a bit, they were still quite under the radar. Drummer Patrick Carney, who produced their debut, took on recording duties again, but this time, the duo decided to record the album in the most unassuming of locations: Carney’s basement. Adding to the rawness is the fact that the album was not recorded using any modern techniques, but rather on an early 1980’s 8-track recorder.
Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach still uses a fair amount of distortion in his playing, but it pales in comparison to Thickfreakness. Every one of the album’s eleven tracks is filled to the brim with thick, sludgy, meaty electric guitar. There are no shifts in tone, acoustics, or any real subtlety to speak of. Every track pounds itself into your consciousness without compromise. While this could be seen as overbearing, it ends up being more cathartic than anything. The riffs are incredibly catchy, and while this is far from music that would have radio impact, one can see the seeds of “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” being planted here. Despite playing loud as all hell, Auerbach shows an unquestionable amount of pop savvy. The fact is, there really are not many blues-rock albums in this day and age, let alone ones that are this informed with the spirit of classic bluesmen such as the band’s greatest singular idol, Junior Kimbrough. Add in a healthy dose of punk’s energy, and garage rock’s complete lack of concern with polish or image, and you have the basis of Thickfreakness’s primeval sound.
Carney’s drums remain the driving force behind Auerbach’s riffs. His savage, yet tasteful bashing behind the kit propels the songs wherever they need to go, and despite their being mixed fairly in the background, the pure vigor of his playing ensures their audibility. Album opener and title track “Thickfreakness” sets the tone, and like say, The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, manages to perfectly describe itself within the title. Auerbach’s sinister slide down the fret board gives way to an absolute monster of a riff. For a title that is used all to often in rock lore, this one actually is deserving of the praise. The verses showcase relative subtlety, only to be bludgeoned away by the return of the monumental riff. The Black Keys have always been masters of loud-soft dynamics, showing an obvious affection for rocking the *** out, but with enough taste to know when to rein things in for the sake of delicious contrast. This is evidenced throughout the album, with cuts such as “Midnight In Her Eyes” and “Set You Free” knowing how to spark the match and let the flames flicker, but stopping before burning the whole damn forest to smithereens.
In addition to his dexterous guitar work, Auerbach’s voice is in fine form on this album. While a far cry from the falsetto and crooning he has developed in recent years, his impassioned howl perfectly compliments the music. He manages to sound tortured, yet triumphant, as the lyrics touch on staple topics of classic blues music from women, to women, to well, more women. While none of his verses would ever be confused with Springsteen, or even Dylan for that matter, this is above all, blues music for the 21st century, and the pure, visceral fervor behind the vocals does more for the style of music than any foray into Webster’s could.
Thickfreakness might be accused of a bit of sameness, but it’s thirty-nine minute runtime means that it never wears out its welcome, and there is some variation to be had even if it does stick within the same primal formula. “Everywhere I Go” is a down tempo slow-burner that is easy to get swept away in throughout its near six-minute runtime. “Hold Me In Your Arms” showcases some superb slide-guitar that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on a blues record fifty or sixty years ago. Album closer “I Cry Alone” ends things beautifully, with a bare bones, stripped-down approach that manages to fit within the context of the album despite seemingly being completely out of place. Spare lead guitar lines permeate the atmosphere with Carney’s hollow-sounding drums while Auerbach’s pained vocals increase in intensity throughout the track. One can practically envision themselves in a musty Ohio basement watching two dudes who have had a few too many hammer out desperate pleas to failed conquests.
While this album is unlikely to convert those who think blues-rock is a relic of the past, the band does have an indie sensibility in the sense of knowing when to stop. One will not find any ten-plus minute jams or excessive guitar wankery. The focus is less on the instrumental heroics, and more on the songs themselves. One might argue that the band is merely copping styles from the past, but their music is genuine, and on this album, they are much more of a straight, albeit, aggressive blues band than anything else. Blues music has always existed within the confines of borrowing from the past, and keeping traditional song forms and topics alive. The album contains two covers, Junior Kimbrough’s “Everywhere I Go”, and Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel”. One would have trouble separating the covers from the band’s original material, and this is a testament to their respect and knowledge of the blues. They may be two white guys from Akron who grew up listening to Robert Johnson on compact disc, but the spirit and talent is undeniable.
The album has incredible replay value despite its barebones approach, and its brevity keeps the experience fresh. Sometimes you just want to crank the volume up to twenty, nod your head, and forget your troubles. This album is perfect for just that, and possesses the power to instantly make you feel better, no matter your emotional state. After all, that is why we enjoy music isn’t it?