Black Keys

The Black Keys, Live at the Moda Center

While most people were out spending their Friday night at various Halloween parties or at home greeting trick-or-treaters, we at Rust Is Just Right spent the evening trucking up to Portland to welcome back The Black Keys.  They had a high bar to pass, both from their own previous performances in the Rose City (they even made a DVD of a previous trip to the Crystal Ballroom) and for other legendary Halloween shows (we were witnesses to Pearl Jam’s amazing set to close out the Spectrum in Philadelphia for good).  “Brothers” Pat and Dan weren’t able to surpass those lofty expectations, but they certainly provided the soundtrack for an excellent night out.

The white light made taking photos a more pleasant experience

The white light made taking photos a more pleasant experience

At this point, The Black Keys are finely-tuned machine, with little room for flexibility or improvisation.  A quick look reveals a standard setlist these days, so for anyone thinking about catching the group on multiple dates should go ahead and probably make other plans.  When you’re at the level that the Black Keys have reached and you’ve constructed an elaborate tour, it’s not a bad strategy to consolidate and provide a more uniform experience, as it makes coordination from lights to sound to tech much easier.  Still, considering everything has been plotted in advance, it took a little bit too much time for the guitar tech to switch out Dan’s axe between songs–though this may be because I’ve been spoiled by the lighting-quick precision of the stage crew at a Pearl Jam show.  However, the guitar tech gets bonus points for providing the pedal steel guitar just for the solo in “Gotta Get Away” in such a smooth manner.

As for the music itself, it’s a new experience these days now that The Black Keys are no longer the Dan and Pat Show live; the touring group is now a cohesive four-piece, with the duo backed by some solid musicians with Oregon ties (Richard Swift and John Wood).  The arrangement frees up Dan quite a bit to emote even more with his singing and providing some support for extended soloing, but it does diminish the impact of Pat on the drums a bit.  There were some early moments where Pat shined and really brought the thunder from behind the kit, and he added a great touch by making the ending of “Fever” a four-on-the-floor feel with a constant kick-drum push, but his contributions tended to get lost more in the shuffle than they did at past shows.

And the curtain comes down, the lights go up

And the curtain comes down, the lights go up

There was no real acknowledgement of the holiday, though plenty of audience members and a significant portion of the crew indulged and dressed up in costume.  For the most part, we were content merely to hear Dan yell about how it was great to be back in Portland.  The band stuck with more recent material to make full use of all their members, leaning heavily on El Camino and reserving the material from Turn Blue for later in the set.  The big radio hits from Brothers got huge applause from the crowd, but there was a healthy contingent of fans that appreciated the dip into the back catalog, including the faithful who really dug in for “Leavin’ Trunk” from their debut, The Big Come Up.  The guys were tight, the sound mix was excellent, and all in all it was a very professional affair.

The highlight of the evening was the encore.  First, as the lights in the arena went out, cell phone lights began to come on and the effect bathed the stadium with a warm glow that was pretty magical.  Then the guys returned and delivered an epic version of Turn Blue opener “Weight of Love”, filled with several fantastic solos from Dan and an additional backing guitarist.  The night ended with “Little Black Submarines”, which is the perfect encapsulation of their career at this point, from the ballad-type intro to the hard-rock finale.

While the show didn’t top our personal list of Best Halloween Shows ever, at least we could take comfort in the fact that we didn’t need to take 5 hours to get back home, as was the case for Pearl Jam (public transport plus daylight savings will do that).  We can at least appreciate that Dan and Pat still put on a great show.


Catching Up On The Week (Oct. 31 Edition)

Some #longreads as you deal with the candy hangover this weekend…

The recent release of The Best Day is allowing Thurston Moore to talk to a range of news outlets over the past couple of weeks.  This week, there are interviews with SPIN and Esquire to check out.

Pitchfork has an in-depth cover story on Run The Jewels, and considering they just released one of the best albums of the year, you should probably give it a look.  And just in time for the holiday, elsewhere on the site they have Jason Heller talking to Peter Berbegal about the connection between the “occult” and rock and roll.

David Lovering, the drummer for the Pixies, talks to Diffuser about touring for the new album, and also touches upon his work as a magician.

Wayne Coyne has been making the rounds discussing With A Little Help From My Fwends, the tribute album to Sgt. Pepper’s that The Flaming Lips and various colleagues put together, including this interview with Newsweek where he discusses favorite and least-favorite Beatles tracks.

If you read any takedown on how brotastic bastardizations are ruining country music, it should be this review of a recent Jason Aldean/Florida-Georgia Line concert.

FADER talks to female music producers about the lack of gender diversity among producers, and asks them what can be done to fix the issue.

And finally, The Black Keys are arriving in town tonight, so we’ll link to an interview that Patrick Carney did with The Oregonian.  We’re looking forward to a great show, and we’ll be back with a review next week.

A List of the Most Infuriating Radio Edits Due to Time Constraints

Having spent some time working at a radio station, I understand many of the problems and concerns that come with writing up a playlist and fitting music into the right slots, in addition to the more general concern of finding and maintaining listeners.  So I understand the point of cutting songs down into more manageable slices so they can be shuffled in and out more easily, as well as avoid the possibility of driving away potential ears if an unpleasant song goes on too long.  This is especially the case when songs from bands new to a station’s playlist get added; it’s best to approach with caution to make sure that your listeners are fans.

However, I find that once songs are dropped from current rotation but are maintained in the station’s library shouldn’t have to encounter those same difficulties.  Once a band becomes an accepted part of the format, it makes little sense to me why the radio should continue to play the shortened version of a song, especially when in the meantime many fans went out and bought the album or song and got used to the way it was intended to be played.  With that in mind, here is a short list of the songs that stations need to replace with their album versions immediately.

5. Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”

Now I understand why stations would want to play the radio edit of this song, if simply for the convenience of not going in to edit all the non-PACIFICA approved language themselves.  I say this even though I know all of us twenty years later know exactly what Trent wants to do to someone like an animal.  My main problem is that it also chops off close to two minutes of pure instrumental genius near the end.  I know it’s tough for radio stations to have plain music without vocals playing for extended periods of time, but throw the audience a bone once in a while and toss in the full version every once in a while.  We’re sophisticated consumers at this point, and we know what to expect.

4. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye”

If you only listened to this song when it came on the radio, you would have no idea that this song contains the most beautiful feedback-drenched guitar solo since the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown”.  That is, unless you listened to my old radio station.  Our station never got a radio-ready copy of the single, and instead we just played the album version of the song that we had from when we played the song on our specialty new music show.  We simply dropped that version into regular rotation, and somehow managed to survive with a six-minute song getting heavy rotation for a few months.  It can be done.

3. The Black Keys – “Little Black Submarines”

It makes sense that our ultra-hyperactive generation can’t sit still enough through two acoustic verses, that we have to get to the RAWK immediately.  But this kills the beauty of the song in my eyes.  In the radio edit, the acoustic beginning serves as mere prelude to the heavy second part of the song, and especially with the fact that the backing organ comes in so early in this version it feels inevitable that the distortion is going to kick in soon.  With the album version, the first part feels more complete, as if we are listening to two equal songs together.  By drawing out the soft beginning, it also gives more weight and emotion to that kickass second half, and it feels more earned.

2. Interpol – “PDA”; Interpol – “Obstacle 1”

We’ve got a tie at this spot, since I can’t choose between the two of them which edit is worse.  With “Obstacle 1”, the bridge is severely cut, and in a rarity, we even lose some lyrics.  While some may be pleased that there are people that never heard the line “Her stories are boring and stuff”, they miss the opportunity to marvel at Sam Fogarino’s shuffling drums and some more of Carlos D’s unique basslines.

The hatchet-job is even worse with “PDA”, as the ending is completely chopped off in an absolutely graceless manner.  The interplay between the different guitars is one of Interpol’s best musical moments, but apparently we shouldn’t be allowed to appreciate that.

1. Deftones – “Change (In the House of Flies)”

The video version of the breakthrough hit from the Deftones cuts even more than the radio version, but I’ll allow it because 1) the video is pretty great and 2) it helped the band reach a massive new audience.  But the radio version commits the unforgivable sin of fading out just before Abe Cunningham’s drums kick in once again with one of the best fills of the decade as the song ramps up one more time before gradually winding down for the finish.  The minimal damage that would be done by letting the song linger for thirty seconds longer is what puts this edit at the top of my list.


The Black Keys – Strange Times

I think this is a great song that would benefit if they cut out a repetition of the chorus at the end, as it would benefit from being leaner and meaner.  Luckily, at some point the band realized this, and the band has performed a shortened version when they play it live.

The Folly of the Never-Ending Search of the Rip-Off

We recently saw the release of new albums from Jack White and The Black Keys (events which readers of this site should be very much well-aware), and while we were happy to hear new music from these great artists, that was not all that returned.  If you were to read up on any of the news surrounding these releases or the reviews themselves, you were bound to find the same tired joke/trope/criticism in every piece: these artists were merely “ripping off” old music.  Often this would be accompanied by the added attack that these were white men getting rich off of black music.  While there is an element of truth to this, it’s time to stop resorting to this same hackneyed cliche.

In the past, this was once a novel and significant complaint.  There were vast amounts of people that had overlooked or were  ignorant of the exploitation of artists throughout our history, and this form of criticism helped illuminate the struggle they endured.  It’s why Chuck D’s lyric that “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” could strike a chord with so many people, both in the fierce resistance by some of an attack on their idol, but also by the support of other communities who could point to how they were left out in the process of cultural appropriation.

It’s taken for granted at this point by many that Elvis built his “revolutionary” rock’n’roll sound off the rhythm and blues music of contemporary black artists like Little Richard.  But this attitude that Elvis “stole” black music is an ultimately shallow analysis and illustrates a pointlessly reductive attitude.  It’s a charge made without context.  Elvis acknowledged the influence of black music and performers throughout his career, and made sure to point it out to others; his career shouldn’t be viewed in the same way as say, Pat Boone’s.

The problem with approaching music in only this way is that it completely reduces the role of the performer.  A song is made up of several components, from the chord changes to the rhythmic patterns to the lyrical content and so on.  While the strength of one part may dominate over the others, to rely solely on that part would make for boring and crappy music.  The fact that we have a whole feature on this site (Covered) where we analyze different performances of the same song helps emphasize this point.  Personal interpretation as well as individual technical skill are both vitally important elements and can significantly change the effectiveness of a song.

[This is where I would put up a video clip of the scene from Spinal Tap where the band spontaneously begins singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave, but you’ll have to make do with just the audio.]

The focus on deconstruction of the elements of a song to a simple common origin ignores the collaborative nature of music, and how new works of art are always indebted in some way to past works.  New music is built on the ideas of old music, often through slight tweaks or modifications.  A slight change may seem insignificant on paper, but the effects in reality are often significant–by changing the emphasis of the beat, you can switch a polka (hit the 1 and 3) into a rock song (hit the 2 and 4).  Therefore to identify a song as employing a traditional 12-bar blues structure and then calling it a day is ridiculous.  It invites the assumption that we have already found the One True Blues Song, and everything post Robert Johnson has been a waste of time.

You can play this game with just about any artist.  The Ramones play sped-up Beach Boys songs, Nirvana is a slicker version of the Pixies, Rachmaninoff puts the bombast of Beethoven and the lyrical romanticism of Chopin in a blender, and so on.   I’ve been guilty of this myself, namely when I complain that the EDM scene today is solely a rehash of the work Aphex Twin did over a decade ago, that it’s just “Windowlicker” with a heavy dose of “Come to Daddy”.  But why limit ourselves to music?  I mean, there’s no need for new video games when we already have “Pong”.  And for that matter, what are you doing on your computer, when you have a perfectly good television over there?  It doesn’t take much to show that the entire exercise is pointless.

None of this is to say that “rip-offs” don’t exist; artists still have to contribute something to the exercise.  But pointing out that elements of a song bear a resemblance to previously recorded music is not an end in and of itself.  Because Television used the double-hit ringing guitar in “Marquee Moon”, does that mean that Interpol can’t use a similar figure in “Obstacle 1”?  It should be obvious to any listener that the two bands achieve different results using the same concept, with each having their own merits.

This should be just as clear with Jack White and The Black Keys.  Yes, they are heavily indebted to old styles (namely the blues, but country and folk play roles as well) and they wear influences on their sleeves, but to deny the fact that each of them add significant personal twists on old ideas is idiotic.  They’re also ready and willing to point out their influences and to try and convince their audience to check them out–Jack White is quick to mention Son House, and The Black Keys released an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers.

The “rip-off” argument at this point is close to outliving its usefulness, and comes off now as lazy and a desperate attempt to impress others with the appearance of some music knowledge.  Hopefully we’ll see the end of it soon.

Missing the Point & Other Disasters

Normally, I’m not the kind of person to go out of my way to trash other people’s reviews.*  No matter how authoritative the tone, in the end, the review is merely the opinion of one writer.  Arguments can be made about the effectiveness about certain tactics or styles, but there is little point in quibbling when there is no single determinate answer to be found.

That said, there are certainly some dumb ways to approach writing a review.  Take the AV Club’s review of Turn Blue for example.  In a three paragraph review of a Black Keys album, the first third is entirely devoted to their lyrics.  To anyone that has ever spent time listening to the band, this is a patently ridiculous approach to reviewing the group (if you look at the review we ran yesterday, you’ll notice that we gave the lyrics only a passing mention).  That of course is not to say that lyrics are unimportant; it’s just that for a blues-rock group like The Black Keys, lyrics are usually an afterthought and are written in more as placeholders than anything (as mentioned in this interview with NPR).  Sure, those that are new to the group may not expect this to be the case, but the writer is reviewing the work of an established band with roots in a genre that doesn’t place an emphasis on the words.  This isn’t true of the blues only; when people listen to a techno or heavy metal song, they tend to not focus on the lyrics (though for the latter this apparently isn’t always the case).  Over a career that spans eight albums, I can hardly think of any significant lyrical turns of phrases or bon mots from the group, outside of a few catchy (and generally meaningless) choruses designed just to get the crowd singing along.

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

Not only are the lyrics unnecessarily emphasized in the review, but they are viewed through a lens that makes no sense in context.  The writer applies half-assed feminist theory in his critique, stating that the band portrays “a view of women that…is glaringly reductive” and that “women are mere caricatures, often painted as temptresses in desperate need of the guidance and fulfillment that can be provided by a man.”  The fact that the band hails from a tradition of the blues is tossed aside, instead of being cited as the primary reason why this would be the case.  One can make it a goal to point out the stereotypes of past generations or go against the perceived boundaries of certain genres, but when it’s clear from the outset that there is no interest in doing so, it doesn’t seem smart to knock a band for failing to engage in that particular fight, especially if one has trouble citing noteworthy examples.  Since in general The Black Keys are not particularly interested in their lyrics (and neither are their fans), it makes little sense to deride them for not bucking against the history of the genre.

This would be bad enough, but from an errant statement it becomes clear that the writer did not do the necessary research before writing this review.  In picking apart the song “It’s Up To You Now”, the author writes “he can’t help but feel exploited by a woman who’s left him,” and then uses that as his conclusion of the band’s foray into typical stereotypes.  Of course, there may be a particular reason why this sentiment may have been present–Dan Auerbach recently went through a divorce, and the tone of the album reflects that difficult ordeal.**  It’s one thing for a reviewer to not know this vital piece of information for an up-and-coming band, but considering that The Black Keys have been the biggest rock band in the country for the past few years (and were well-established in the indie community which is the AV Club’s audience well before then), it’s inexcusable to not know that information.

The other problem with this approach is the utterly reductive notion that if a woman is portrayed in any sort of antagonistic manner in a song, it is a symptom of a serious malady like sexism.  The Pitchfork review runs with this premise and makes the argument explicitly, stating “[l]yrically, the Black Keys’ casual chauvinism has gone from ‘Girl, you look so good’ to ‘Woman, you done me wrong[.]'”  This kind of assertion is troubling on some levels, and utterly ridiculous on others.  First, the idea that noticing the attractiveness of a potential partner is a concept that is inherently chauvinistic shows a total lack of regard for both context and human nature (yes, leering and catcalling is bad, but not all examples of noting attractiveness are inherently evil–without it, it’s difficult to imagine how most relationships would ever start); and second, that if when discussing a relationship one cannot attempt to assess blame on another party without coming off as a misogynist, then we are truly fucked.  Let’s brush aside the fact that this attitude is more paternalistic than anything, that denying the other party any agency and indulging in only the most protectionist of assumptions is a bad approach to any situation.  It’s utterly remarkable that the reviewer has attempted to brush aside the subject matter of 90% of music of the last half century in only a few words; if you take away the joy of falling in love and the despair in falling out of it, you’re not left with much to discuss, and we already had Rage Against The Machine cover politics and The Decemberists cover 19th century literature.***  Also, it ignores the various lyrics where Dan assigns blame to himself, but who cares, it doesn’t fit the narrative.

The entire approach reeks of someone attempting to pass off a superficial understanding of critical theory, as if they learned the vocabulary but failed to pay attention when the class discussion switched to their proper application.  It’s one thing to view cultural trends and their impact, but it’s quite another to expect everyone to suddenly align with the same worldview and create a product that conforms to it.  Merely invoking a general trope is not enough to warrant such condemnation; make your argument when you can cite something concrete and of substance instead of a lazy generality.

Again, this isn’t to say that lyrics are unimportant–it’s just that the people interested in reading a review of The Black Keys generally do not care.

*This isn’t true at all–I’ve been known to trash reviews to my friends on several occasions.  I just don’t write articles about them.

**It’s possible to interpret this as a possible contradiction to my main argument, that in fact the lyrics do matter.  However, I think this information is more important to understand the general tone of the lyrics (and the music as well), and that the individual lines themselves hardly matter at all.

***This wasn’t even my biggest problem with the Pitchfork review.  There were several issues I had with the discussion of the music itself–the clear problem that the reviewer had with Danger Mouse as a producer (a bias that is good to admit to, but then you wonder why if someone comes in with a negative attitude at the start why they are assigned the review), the idea that covering the Beatles is somehow a sign of artistic bankruptcy (and implicitly that nobody innovative ever covered the Beatles), but most of all that the keyboard in “Fever” is…”farty”.  I expressed serious concerns for the reviewers health (and for his ears as well) if he thought that kind of tone was “farty”.  At least Mr. Fitzmaurice had the good humor to favorite that tweet.

Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

It’s a bit odd that for a band that got its start and first achieved fame as a blues band, that it wasn’t until their eighth album that anyone would call an album by The Black Keys “sad”.  Part of that is the nature of the blues: even when you’re writing about how life has done you wrong, the goal is to keep it from letting you stay down for too long.

Turn Blue isn’t a typical “sad” album however.   There is no overwhelming aura of depression or melancholy; it’s marked more by a sense of restraint and internal contemplation, especially compared to their most recent work (most notably the built-for-arena-touring El Camino and their crossover breakthrough Brothers).  Instead of outsized swagger and riffs, the album relies on intimate grooves and swirling psychedelic touches.  It’s definitely of a piece of their post-Magic Potion work (i.e., it’s not the down-and-dirty two-man grimey blues of their early work), but it’s examining a different aspect of that style.

The album kicks off with the fantastic “Weight of Love”, a slow-burner that begs for repeated listens–a desire that I’ve indulged in several times already.  A ballad that takes its time to gradually build over six minutes before carefully fading away, it serves as a great mission statement for the album.  The song signals the return to prominence of guitar to The Black Keys’ sound, with three separate, gorgeous solos from Dan Auerbach, culminating in a thrilling double-tracked ripper at the climax.  While the solos are definitely worthy of being singled out for praise, the song works so well because of the efforts of all the musicians involved.  The breakdowns to the bare grooves of the verses lead into gorgeous swells of the chorus and climax as instruments are added to the mix, and Patrick Carney’s fills in the solo mark some of his finest work to date.

[There originally was a YouTube clip of the song included in this post, but it has since been taken down.  We will attempt to post a replacement when one becomes available.]

The album maintains a mysterious, somewhat ethereal mood throughout, with 60’s/70’s soul replacing the blues and classic rock as the primary influence this time around.  It’s noticeable even on the tracks meant to get the crowd moving, like on the lead single “Fever”.  The keyboard melody is catchy, but there is a slight air of disturbed menace that gives the whole song a delirious quality, especially considering the lyrics.  Though it has escaped attention from most people, the ending should be given some special praise, as it does a great job of inverting the melody to build up the mild paranoia evoked in the song before falling apart at the end.

The blues influences haven’t completely disappeared, however.  “It’s Up To You Now” relies on a similar groove to The Stooges’ “1969” (with the addition of typical eighth-note drum hits from Carney to accent the end of each phrase), and the halftime breakdown features an especially sleazy guitar solo.  The ingratiatingly fun closer “Gotta Get Away” is the closest the band gets to big dumb classic rock, and it serves as an excellent epilogue to the seriousness preceding it.  Considering how easily it puts a smile on your face, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it ended up being a single down the line.

Danger Mouse contributes a lot of his signature touches to the album, but his production doesn’t overwhelm the group.  Some of his trademarks do show up, like the muted staccato bass, the subtle organ flourishes, and the spaghetti western-influenced strings (the last of which is most clearly heard in “Year in Review” and “10 Lovers”).  But the band has incorporated a lot of these aspects into their sound already at this point, and they never push Dan’s guitar and vocals away from the spotlight.  It’s clear that since Danger Mouse’s initial contributions to Attack & Release that the group has evolved into a different entity; at the time, it was a necessary injection of new blood, as the original formula had begun to deliver diminished returns (though I believe that Magic Potion doesn’t deserve the poor reputation that it seems to have received).  Though the sound of present-day Black Keys differs in many ways from the Rubber Factory and thickfreakness days, one can still feel the basic DNA of their sound still present in the music, that it’s simply exploring different sonic territory through their own unique lens.

Over the Weekend (May 12th Edition)

Considering the amount of material we have for our Monday roundup, this should be a very good week.  Let’s get to it!

Of course, as we’ve covered before, the biggest news coming up is the release tomorrow of the new album from The Black Keys.  They’ve been doing their part by performing on SNL this past Saturday, performing “Fever” and “Bullet in the Brain”, and by performing on Letterman tonight.  They did two songs for the show, and also treated the crowd outside the Late Show rooftop to a full set featuring songs from previous albums.  You can tune in to this link to catch one of the re-airings, though this is probably only temporary.

Speaking of the late night shows, Late Night with Seth Meyers featured another band on which we did a feature recently, as Parquet Courts visited last week.  Here’s their performance of the new song “Black and White”, from the upcoming Sunbathing Animal.

Soundgarden is prepping for their big tour with Nine Inch Nails, and their warmup will include a special gig at New York’s Webster Hall where they will perform the entirety of Superunknown, and the tickets will cost only $19.94 (the year the seminal album came out, of course).  That’s a pretty damn cool venue, and to see a band of that stature in a relatively small place like that will definitely be a great experience for the lucky few who are able to go.

We had a link for a short article on Big Star on Friday, and today the Facebook page for the band posted a link to a rare track from co-founder Chris Bell’s early band Icewater.

Fender had a couple of cool posts worth checking out.  The first is a talk with Nile Rodgers about his legendary “Hitmaker” Stratocaster, a strange combo guitar that he picked up at a pawn shop decades ago but whose distinctive sound is what you hear on all those great records featuring Nile.  The second is an article about a recent show by We Are Scientists where they were joined by former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp.  It fit right in with last week’s 20th anniversary of The Blue Album, and together they performed several Weezer songs together, as well as “Friends of P.” from Matt’s other band, The Rentals.  I wish I could have been at that show, and I’d have to say I’d prefer the “Weezer Are Scientists” version of the band over their current incarnation.

In recognition of Mother’s Day yesterday, here is Eminem’s latest video, the Spike Lee-directed “Headlights”, which covers his attempts at reconciliation with his mother.

And finally, we’ve got yet another useless list from Rolling Stone, if you’re into that kind of thing.  I had been thinking that it had been too long since we’d had one of those, but they did us a solid last week by publishing their version of the “100 Best Albums of the Nineties”.  If you want to know whether or not you should give it a look, I’ll note that in their eyes that Bridges to Babylon (#76) is the superior album to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (unlisted).  I think that’s all I have to say.

Covered: “Have Love Will Travel”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

As we’ve mentioned before, the big news next week is the release of the latest album from The Black Keys, Turn Blue.  That means it’s a perfect opportunity to do one of our regular features for one of our favorite bands, so we’re going to give the Akron, Ohio duo the Covered treatment this week.

Much like their blues predecessors, The Black Keys have displayed a keen aptitude for covers over their career, so there were many options that we could have chosen for this feature.  Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney have shown that they’ve drawn inspiration from a number of sources, from the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” on their debut, to the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” from Rubber Factory, to blues legend Junior Kimbrough, for whom they did an entire EP of covers, Chulahoma.  We were tempted to showcase their excellent version of Jerry Butler’s classic “Never Gonna Give You Up”, but decided to highlight the earlier “classic” style of the band, instead of their more recent turn to 70’s R&B and classic rock.

The true mark of the brilliance of The Black Keys is how seamlessly their covers fit within their albums.  There is never any indication or signal from the band that “THIS IS A COVER”; all songs bear the same signature aesthetic of that trademark Black Keys “sound”, and they never disrupt the flow of the album.  In other words, as one listens through each of their albums, the novice listener would probably be unable to pick out which songs are the originals and which ones are the covers.  Perhaps this is a function of the basic setup of the band–drums and guitar, with the latter using a fairly consistent tone.  The simple structure (balancing between only three elements (drums/vocals/guitars) and relying on the same instrumentation) helps the band maintain a consistent aesthetic.

This is especially true of “Have Love Will Travel”.  It wasn’t until years after my first listen to thickfreakness did I realize it was a cover, and that was only after checking out the album credits on Wikipedia.  It’s got the same great dirty, fuzzy guitar tone found throughout the album, and features several tasty leads and solos.  Dan gives an impassioned performance with the vocals, matching the intensity of the guitar, and the production style of making it sound as if it was recorded through a tin can enhances the retro feel of the song.  Pat does a great job of mixing between shuffle and a more basic rock beat, and his single-beat hits before the last line of each chorus really liven up the song.

The song has a long history, having been covered by several artists since its release in 1959.  The version that probably inspired The Black Keys was rendition done by The Sonics.  It’s simply a perfect slice of garage rock.  It’s a bit quicker than the Black Keys version, leaning a bit harder on a basic swinging rhythm.  Here, the guitar sticks to the basic riff, but there’s a killer sax solo that kicks the track into a higher gear.  There is a bit of a different approach to each performance: while the Black Keys were committed to wringing out each possible bit of angst from the song, the Sonics would seemingly be content to just toss this one in their set to keep the energy up.

Considering the relative similarities between the versions presented above, hearing the original is quite a shock.  It’s a doo-wop song with a much more straight-ahead rhythm (listen to the instruments hit every single eighth note–the only hint of swing is found in the bass line).  The carefree nature of the original mirrors The Sonics much more than The Black Keys, but one can see how The Black Keys came to their interpretation through The Sonics version.  It could be argued that by focusing on emphasizing the bluesier aspects of the song, that The Black Keys were accentuating the origins, but even I think that’s a bit much.  Still, in the end I think I prefer The Black Keys cover most of all–they keep the integrity of the garage rock version of it, but they add their own spin to it that makes it sound like a “Black Keys” song.