in Retrospecticus

It’s an exciting time to be a Black Keys fan as this Akron, Ohio duo is as hot as ever. Coming off their most successful and arguably best album The Black Keys have hit the mainstream, but it didn’t happen overnight. Dan Auerbach (guitar/vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) have together made seven albums under the Keys moniker and it has been a long way to the top. The group’s new album El Camino produced by Danger Mouse looks to be another album much in the vein of the catchy blues-rock explosion Brothers but we’ll just have to wait and see. Until then I figured I’d revisit all the Key’s past albums. Now I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little boring listening to so much bare bones blues/rock but it was an experience nonetheless.

The Big Come Up (2002)

The Big Come Up is your standard rock/blues debut but with a few twists and tweaks to the genre to make it stand out. The Big Come Up diversifies with it’s raw modern take on the blues, including various eclectic covers of traditional songs, and hey, even a Beatles number thrown into the mix. Though the duo’s bare bones almost primal approach to old blues numbers is always intriguing it’s their original compositions that make this worth listening to. Early on were treated to the undeniably catchy “I’ll Be Your Man” which is also the theme to the HBO series Hung. Songs like “I’ll Be Your Man” showcase the duo’s strength in carrying a melodic rock song in what’s more or less the most basic package it could be delivered in.

Even on their first album vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach displays some early hints of great melodic ability not only as a vocalist, but also as a melodic guitarist. Auerbach’s guitar in “Countdown” is as bright and memorable as any vocal line could be and were treated to that style time and time again. “The Breaks” is another favorite with it’s whining bends accompanied by a nifty shuffle from Patrick Carney. The drum work from Carney is for the most part fairly basic but sufficient. Rather than showing off with big fills and intricate parts Carney keeps it very simple as to better compliment Auerbach’s guitar. The Big Come Up is everything you could want in a genre often overlooked today and stands as an excellent introduction to this group.

Favorite Tracks: “The Breaks”, “Countdown”, “I”ll Be Your Man”

Thickfreakness (2003)

Whereas songs on The Big Come Up tended to go along at a fairly moderate bluesy pace Thickfreakness kicks it up a notch. The songs here are faster, more intense, and more energetic especially on drummer Patrick Carney’s part. What I wouldn’t give to have a song like “Set You Free” in Rock Band with that George of the Jungle-like drum part. It’s catchy songs like “Set You Free” that helped propel The Black Keys and this album to a somewhat larger audience.

According to Wikipedia Thickfreakness was recorded in 14 hours in Patrick Carney’s basement on an early 1980s 8-track recorder and that only makes me like it more. I suppose there is kind of a rushed manic feel to Thickfreakness and the feeling of two guys just running on pure adrenaline only makes this album rock that much more. The songs aren’t quite as intriguing as the tracks on The Big Come Up which probably makes it my least favorite Keys record, but there’s plenty to like in retro songs like “Hard Row” and the a cover of The Sonic’s “Have Love Will Travel”.

Favorite Tracks: “Hard Row”, “”If You See Me”, “Set You Free”

Rubber Factory (2004)

Named after the very fact that it was recorded in a rubber factory in the duo’s hometown of Akron, Ohio the Keys’ third album is big and echoey with plenty of sludgy guitar rock to satisfy. The songs aren’t necessarily the group’s strongest but it brims with distorted intensity. Early on there wasn’t much that drew me into the album with the exception of the excellent radio friendly “10 A.M Automatic” that has a great music video directed by David Cross by the way. Though by about the fourth or fifth song I started to develop an appreciation for the “grooves” forged on this album and now I enjoy it.

This is also about the time where Black Keys’ songs started to appear in countless commercials. To this day if you need a song to accompany a commercial about trucks this is your go to group and the heaviness of Rubber Factory has all ya need.

Favorite Tracks: “10 A.M Automatic”, “All Hands Against His Own”, “Girl is On My Mind”

Magic Potion (2006)

At this point I feel like I’m reviewing the same album for the third time in a row. Don’t get me wrong Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory, and Magic Potion are all good albums but they all sound more or less the same. I don’t blame the guys, there’s really only so much you can do with guitar and drums so it’s amazing they could keep it interesting after one record let alone this many. The thing that separates Magic Potion in my mind is that it’s the album that has “Your Touch” which I still consider the group’s defining song. I first heard the song on an episode of Eastbound and Down and ever since I’ve been drawn to the raw energy of that song and of this band.

For the most Magic Potion is the same ol’ Keys but with even better production, and for the first time all original songs. That’s really all there is too it man.

Favorite Tracks: “Strange Desire”, “Your Touch”, “You’re the One”

Attack & Release (2008)

Even though “Your Touch” was the song that got me into The Black Keys this was the first Keys’ album I listened to. Kind of strange, “Man I really like this song so now I’m gonna go out and buy the album it’s not on.” I think it had to do with the fact that this was the newest Keys album so I went from there. Attack & Release was an odd introduction to the duo as it’s more or less their departure from the standard two piece blues rock setup. Of course you’re always going to have a couple basic blues songs like”I Got Mine” one of the band’s most popular songs for some reason, but then you have the songs that are a little harder to categorize. What could of changed for the group? Aside from maybe the desire to experiment maybe it has something to with Danger Mouse coming on board as producer.

“Strange Times” is a perfect example of the Keys mixing up their sound into this eerie mish mash of piano, bass, echoey backup vocals, and various sound effects. You have all sorts of stuff thrown in this album from keyboards to a few drum machines, to more guitar effects, but it’s still kept in moderation when compared to the Keys’ next album. This album is where we really get to see the duo’s prowess for songwriting and is a must listen for anyone interested in this band, it’s a real trip but it’s worth it.

Favorite Tracks: “Psychotic Girl”, “Remember When (Side A)”, “Strange Times”

Brothers (2010)

Brothers was a the natural progression for The Black Keys if they wanted to avoid becoming stale or predictable and it couldn’t of come at a better time. Brothers has not only become The Keys most heralded work but garnered everything from grammy nominations to many TV appearances including an appearance on The Colbert Report where The Black Keys argued with Vampire Weeked over who was the bigger sellout regarding their songs in commercials. Breaking away from the standard guitar/drum arrangement and adding in things like organ and bass on every song not only makes this the Keys most layered record but also their most thoroughly diverse and entertaining.

Blues rock is still intact on Brothers but in some case has been set aside for dabbling with R/B and soul (“The Only One”, “Never Gonna Give You Up”) and a more conventional rock sound (“Everlasting Light”, “Howlin’ For You) though that last one definitely has it’s bluesy roots. What’s great about Brothers is it has given us an album that’s more accessible to newcomers of the band and at the same time treats the older fans with something they may have never expected, it’s like getting a surprise gift on Administrative Professional’s Day.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most people now said this was their favorite KeysEl Camino will be a joy if it continues the trend of a bigger Keys, and based off the single I think it will be

Favorite Tracks:“Everlasting Light”, “Howlin’ For You”, “The Only One”