The Black Keys

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The Black Keys

Rock duo

Critical attempts to describe the sound created by the Black Keys often vary between comparisons to the garage rock of the White Stripes and the blues-rock revisionism of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but a more accurate classification might cover both those bases and the wide berth in between. The powerhouse duo of guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney hails from Akron, Ohio, and has gained notice for a raucous blues-based racket that honors the blues-rock tradition while adding elements taken from the do-it-yourself post-punk and garage-rock traditions. The result is a musical soufflée that is equal parts Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, the MC5, and Nuggets-era 1960s rock ‘n’ roll minimalism. The group exploded this minimalism, however, with the release of Attack & Release, which was produced by Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and featured guest musicians Marc Ribot and Ralph Carney from Tom Waits's band.

Auerbach and Carney met while both were quite young. They started the Black Keys in 2002 after dropping out of college, taking the band's name from a phrase used by a fellow Akron denizen, a schizophrenic artist who used black keys to describe people who "weren't quite right," according to a National Public Radio segment. While attempting to launch the band, Auerbach and Carney mowed lawns to stay afloat financially.

The debut release of the Black Keys, 2002's The Big Come Up, was released on the Alive label. Critics noted that the band's blues-based sound revealed the young men's fully realized affinity to the blues, while at the same time avoiding the clichés of most young blues aficionados. The duo played without a bassist, rhythm guitar player, keyboards, or harmonica, and the stripped-down approach sounded fresh and new. Reviewing the album, All Music Guide critic Richie Unterberger noted that "Dan Auerbach has a genuinely fine, powerful blues voice," and also noted Auerbach's guitar playing, "conjuring suitably harsh and busy (and sometimes heavily reverbed) riffs out of what sounds like a cheap but effectively harsh amp." Overall, he praised the duo's "cool raunchy electric blues."

International Touring Act

For their sophomore effort, the Black Keys signed with Fat Possum Records, a deal that afforded them wider national and international distribution, resulting in wider recognition outside of their Midwest base. Thickfreakness, released in 2003, was recorded in a one-day, 14-hour burst of creativity. All Music Guide critic Mark Deming reviewed the album, describing the sound as "hot, primal, and heartfelt." He concluded that the Black Keys confronted "the blues with soul, muscle, and respect." The band's profile, thus raised, prompted internationally known acts Sleater-Kinney and Beck to invite the group to tour as an opening act, thereby introducing them to European audiences.

In 2004 Fat Possum released Rubber Factory, which quickly became a college radio staple. Auerbach and Carney recorded the album after a brief hiatus from each other following a grueling touring schedule for Thickfreakness. The duo cited exhaustion as a reason for declining a headlining European tour. "We were given opportunities that we really couldn't pass up," Auerbach told Rolling Stone writer Andrew Dansby. "But that touring really kicked the s-t out of us…. So we took a little time off, because we didn't want to have anything to do with each other." The band returned to Akron, expecting to record the album in the same home basement where they recorded Thickfreakness, but that plan was aborted when they discovered the house had been sold. After a search of available buildings in Akron, they settled on a warehouse in a still-operable tire factory. "They just put us in the corner by ourselves, where no one could hear us," Auerbach explained to Dansby. The location also provided the title for Rubber Factory, an album that many critics considered the group's masterpiece. While continuing to adhere to the band's formula, the group also managed to work in covers of Robert Pete Williams's "Grown So Ugly" and Kinks's "Act Nice and Gentle." In a review in which he asserted that Rubber Factory "is the most exciting and best rock & roll record of 2004," All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that the Black Keys had "absorbed the language of classic rock and the sensibility of indie rock—they're turning familiar sounds into something nervy and fresh, music that builds on the past yet lives fearlessly in the moment." Erlewine made a case for the development of Auerbach's songwriting skills, as well, asserting that Auerbach's songs "have enough melodic and lyrical twists to make it seem like he's breaking rules, but his trick is that he's doing this within traditional blues-rock structures. He's not just reinvigorating a familiar form, he's doing it without a lick of pretension; it never seems as if the songs were written, but that they've always existed and have just been discovered."

Rubber Factory turned out to be the Black Keys' swan-song with Fat Possum Records. For the 2006 release, Magic Potion, the band inked a deal with Nonesuch Records, the home of Tom Waits and other highly respected artists. For National Public Radio, Auerbach explained the Black Keys' intention for their Nonesuch debut: "The idea was for people to be able to sit on a porch in Akron with a can of beer and blast the record through a boom box…. People can depend on Pat and me to play music and be around for life.We have to: It's the only job skill we have."

For the Record …

Members include Dan Auerbach , vocals; Patrick Carney , drums.

Released debut album, The Big Come Up, 2002; selected as opening act for Sleater-Kinney tour, 2003; released Rubber Factory, 2004; released Magic Potion, 2006; released Attack & Release, 2008.

Addresses: Management—John Peets, Q Prime South, 131 South 11th St., Nashville, TN 37206, fax: 615-258-1040, email: [email protected] Publicist—Mary Moyer, Sacks & Co., email: [email protected], phone: 212-741-1000.

In 2008 the Black Keys released their first album to feature an outside producer, Attack & Release. Journalists reported that the album's songs were originally intended as a collaboration between producer Danger Mouse, songwriter Auerbach, and rhythm-and-blues legendary guitarist and bandleader Ike Turner. Turner, however, died before the project was realized. The group and Danger Mouse were undeterred, however, and recorded the songs as an official Black Keys' album. "I think Dan and I were intrigued to work with somebody as a producer because we both realized we couldn't teach ourselves anything more, and it was best to start learning from other people," Carney told a National Public Radio writer. "When we were like twenty-two, we didn't have the money to do this; by the time we were 24, maybe we thought we knew more than we actually did. Now at 27, we maybe just realized we … could learn from other people who make records." The album's sound is enriched by Danger Mouse's use of outside musicians, including singer Jessica Lea Mayfield, Marc Ribot, and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney.

Selected discography

The Big Come Up, Alive, 2002.

Thickfreakness, Fat Possum, 2003.

Rubber Factory, Fat Possum, 2004.

Magic Potion, Nonesuch, 2006.

Attack & Release, Nonesuch, 2008.

Sources

Online

"Black Keys Open ‘Factory,’" Rolling Stone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/6201834/black_keys_open_factory/print (May 14, 2008).

"The Black Keys," Pitchforkmedia.com,http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/record_review/49615-the-black-keys-attack-release (May 14, 2008).

The Black Keys Official Web site,http://www.theblackkeys.com (May 14, 2008).

"Review," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (May 14, 2008).

"Rocking the Garage, Ohio-Style," National Public Radio,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyID=5778019; May 14, 2008).

—Bruce Walker