Despite their angsty, dolefully themed anthems conjuring sweaty images of hardship and sun-soaked Alabama blacktop, the two white boys from Akron, Ohio, that make up the Black Keys have long insisted they are not a blues band.
It's an assertion that's grown increasingly fervent with the ever-expanding commercial inclusiveness, and diluted nature, of the "blues" genre, one that's come to encapsulate John Mayer albums sold on Starbucks counters.
And that's not really the crowd the Black Keys are aiming to play their tunes for.
In an era of overproduced rock albums and finished products polished to the brink of sterility, the duo's most distinctive, and refreshing, appeal is the stripped-down, roughshod nature of its sound. It's marked by the guttural utterances of grizzly-bearded frontman Dan Auerbach, whose deep-throated, splintery voice presents itself as aged well beyond his 29 years. Add to that the simple but solid command of his traditional blues-rock pentatonic execution on the guitar neck and the well-honed use of the distortion pedal that instinctively melds with the dominant hard rhythms of Patrick Carney, who bullies his drum set like a ragdoll in the background. The result is an indignant blast of sound full of distortion but clear in its intent, largely devoid of both the frills of many contemporary blues icons and the deep self-consciousness of indie-rock, but widely appealing to followers of both cults.
Oft mentioned in the same breath as the White Stripes — another roots-influenced, foot-stomping, Midwestern rock duo whose music duly reverberates with the urban blue-collar sensibilities of their hometown — the Black Keys, beyond the obvious similarities, have legitimately distinguished themselves and their musical personalities. Profound, poetic lyricists they are not. But that seems far from what most listeners are looking for.
It's the type of music that seems like it shouldn't be deconstructed in a music article. But what can you do?
In their short but prolific life as a band, which began in an Ohio garage in 2001, the Black Keys have garnered an impressively large following, as evidenced by their upcoming, sold-out show in the art-deco opulence of Oakland's newly reopened Fox Theater this Saturday, April 17. The venue is almost too posh a setting for the band's grittiness, a sound far more suited to Oakland's streets surrounding the theater.
The tour follows on the heels of their fifth album, Attack and Release, which came out last year. Produced by Danger Mouse, the sound scientist behind Gnarls Barkley, the album is a departure from the band's earlier, minimalist projects, which were recorded in garages, living rooms, and, in one case, an abandoned tire factory. The album is a hybrid of sounds, a series of disparate tracks that slide from Southern-twinged R&B and country stylings to the more ethereal, languorous wanderings of tunes like "Remember When." It's clear that the songs were recorded in a high-class studio with very competent folks behind the sound board. The album has its share of highlights — "Psychotic Girl," a slow-groove, banjo-infused number, is worth putting on repeat — and is still overall a pretty good listen, but it's the heightened production quality and mixing of more complex arrangements, atypical for the group, that ultimately makes it a less appealing album than previous efforts. The Black Keys are at their best when they're loud, simple, and direct, and this album, which features additional instrumentation and some clear digital tricks, distracts from the group's more typical hard-pounding delivery.
The Danger Mouse collaboration initially happened when he approached the band about producing an album with legendary soul guitarist Ike Turner. A few tracks were recorded together, but the project remained incomplete and was ultimately abandoned after Turner's death in December 2007. Attack and Release was the follow-up to that effort, and Danger Mouse's influence on the album is evident.
The Black Keys will play to a crowd this Saturday that will likely include a patchwork of rock-blues diehards longing for the sounds of Jimi Hendrix or Junior Kimbrough and an ample representation of stoic Bay Area plaid-clad, skinny-jeaned indie hipsters seeking the amplification and belligerent essence the duo offers. It's a large stage and a vacuous space for just two men, but they will no doubt produce, with ease, a sound big enough to fill the room and reverberate off the Moorish tiles that line the domed ceiling. Never underestimate the decibel level of two Midwesterners beating the crap out of their instruments.