Thursday, July 4, 2019

album review: "let's rock!" by the black keys

The last time I reviewed The Black Keys was five years ago, when I covered Turn Blue - and I can't be the only one who thinks that some of the backlash I've received even from the fans in hindsight might be undeserved.

Because I did get backlash when I covered Turn Blue, one of those cases where I was lukewarm on a project that nowadays is widely held as one of The Black Keys' weakest albums, the culmination of the sour, desaturated tones that Brian Burton had been giving them for years and lyrics that actually probably don't get enough credit but still culminated in an unpleasantly cohesive experience. But that album is something of an outlier to The Black Keys' formula, and for many folks' first exposure to me talking about the band, it might have presented a skewed picture. As I've said before, every guy of my generation or older will have a Black Keys phase, and mine lasted about three months - they've got a great knack for scuzzed out melody and hooks that Burton to his credit was able to ramp up, but as songwriters they frequently tested my patience and the decidedly mercenary approach they took to churning out albums led to some wild variance in quality. 

So I'll admit I actually had some expectations for this new project, "Let's Rock!", not just because Brian Burton was not producing it, but also how given the band's long absence, the sound and ideas could be revitalized. Granted, I didn't expect greatness - for me the band hasn't been consistently great since Thickfreakness or Rubber Factory - but hey, the group is coming off their worst album thus far, I had some hopes: so what did we get from "Let's Rock!"?

To this album presents to me a weird quandary - in that, in principle, I've already reviewed this album. Specifically I'm talking about my review of the comeback album Help Us Stranger from The Raconteurs that I put out just last week and where I could track the majority of my criticisms both positive and negative onto this comeback album from The Black Keys! It's actually a little jarring how many parallels there are, from the essential core of strong tunes but frustrating groove sections, lyrics that remain underwhelming but seem to circle around similar retro rock star preening, the fact that so much of this album seems custom designed to be slotted into modern rock playlists with workmanlike efficiency because it's a very safe project and The Black Keys have the laurels to rest upon, it's all there... and yet I like this more, or feel a little more wiling to give this a pass. And so if this review goes down a strange rabbit hole of trying to figure out why that is... well, you've all been warned.

Because I'll say this right now, it sure as hell doesn't have to do with Dan Auerbach behind the microphone. And if I were to highlight a glaring weakness on this project right out of the gate, it's the vocals: not only do they sound thin and stiff, even with the benefit of the women contributing backing vocals or the occasional splash of blatantly retro multitracked harmonies, Auerbach just sounds underwhelming - not quite a deal breaker given the subject matter, but it's certainly annoying. And normally with the benefit of lo-fi filters and pickups this can be disguised to make him sound more gruff and potent than he is, but we're not talking about the burly, bluesy lo-fi murk of Thickfreakness or Rubber Factory or the attempts at a more visceral bark that characterized Brothers and El Camino. And for the life of me I have no idea why he thought this was a good idea: I get that Auerbach's solo album was a lethargic affair and he did do some work with Lana Del Rey, but Burton's not here anymore, you've got an opportunity to let the riffs hit with some fire, so why not add some genuine intensity in the delivery?

Well, that's the thing: even if Burton is gone, his fingerprints in the choice of effects pedals and tones are all across this album. The most prominent area is in the vocal layering which just sounds watery and compressed in a way that only further emphasizes that washed out effect, but similar tones also creep onto the guitar lines, either through an abuse of effect pedals or compression trying to add dynamics to a mix where the arrangements are limited, and that's not even touching on the slightly embarrassing attempts at funk we get in the grooves of 'Breaking Down' or the boogie rock of 'Tell Me Lies'. And here's where I bring up the ugly question that was mostly avoided when Brian Burton practically became a third man in the group but one that's relevant here: are we finally reaching the point where The Black Keys' two-piece formula is running out of gas? Don't get me wrong, the fact that the duo has gotten so much mileage out of guitar overdubs and occasionally layering in a bassline is impressive, but more than a few times even on the songs I really liked I was left with the impression that a full-time bassist or keyboardist could add some diversity, especially if Auerbach wasn't going to be bringing much firepower vocally. And that takes us to questions of layering - forget the basslines, why are so much of Pat Carney's drums submerged into the mix, where the handclaps are often louder than the snares? Or take a song I otherwise like such as 'Go' - great tune, the squonking meat of the lead sounded great, but everything here sounded like it was getting eaten alive by that lead and the overdubs. And I'll say this: if at some point the duo realized that the guitar interplay was by far their strongest asset and was just going to double down on layered and crunchy melodic grooves, it was a big step in the right direction... even if the T-Rex influence is as blatant as can be. But hey, when you have the dueling clean and scuzzed out pickups of 'Shine A Little Light', the terrific lead melody on 'Lo/Hi', the swaggering sizzle of 'Get Yourself Together', the blocky crash of 'Under The Gun', and the great noisy driving riffs of the closer 'Fire Walk With Me', they're strong enough tunes that I'm able to mostly overlook the utterly bland and overlong 'Walk Across The Water', or the tinny attempt at 70s AM rock on 'Sit Around And Miss You' - mostly.

So okay, it looks like the great guitar lines and some occasionally well-layered grooves are the major differentiating factor, but the writing is often the most worrisome asterisk I've put on their work... and yet while I'm not saying it's great, the sourness I've normally come to expect from the Black Keys seems a bit more muted this time around. Oh, it's still here - 'Tell Me Lies' has such charming lines like 'Every woman who has ever loved you is telling you lies', which has sparked the suspicion from fans Auerbach wrote it about his ex-wife, and the martyrdom complex rife through 'Fire Walk With Me' did test my patience - but moments like 'Lo/Hi' and 'Breaking Down' at least seem a bit more self-aware in calling out his moodiness and sulking, and most of the time when the women show up on this project, the lovestruck moments feel a bit more earnest or just an acknowledgement she's on a similar high-flying path. And while you have the outlaw posturing of songs like 'Under The Gun' and the petulance of 'Sit Around And Miss You', you at least get the impression that if it's there, it's more going through the motions than actually selling it. And that's the funny thing about a lot of the writing: it feels strange to describe a Black Keys album as underwritten, but it's clear the words are more here to serve the melodic hook than the other way around... and I'm a bit torn of whether that's a good idea, because while the overdubbed guitar lines are by far the most potent part of this album and the biggest selling point, tepid writing can prevent an album like this from really sticking the landing and lasting. 

But at the same time... again, maybe it's the benefit of rock-bottom expectations and the band succeeding at doing less in a safer lane, but I actually liked this album a decent bit. Maybe its brand of nostalgia doesn't quite feel as played out as what The Raconteurs tried, maybe the writing doesn't have as many moments of pure annoyance, maybe it's just that the tunes and melodic grooves have more scuzz and crunch to them, but to me this works despite its flaws. Now let me stress those flaws are prominent and exasperating: it's far from their best work, for a "safe" album this is a project that the Black Keys cannot get away with releasing twice especially given their reputation for treading similar ground, and between Auerbach's underwhelming singing and frustrating insistence on tired retro throwbacks it's a sign the band could be in trouble going forward if they don't change something up, or even just bring in a producer from outside. And yes, it's going to be annoying for what will be The Black Keys' most inessential album to receive mounds of success from mainstream rock radio and every commercial endorsement they can muster - but that might be the one redeeming point of irony here. The album takes its art and title from the last words of a Nashville prisoner before he was executed - but the phrase is in quotes, a mercenary death knell only redeemed by the fact the album does actually have the sizzle to stick the landing. And thus for me... eh, extremely light 7/10, and while I'd say for the fans only, I can imagine this might get more play just for a few scattered great songs than as an essential listen. Still, there are some great songs - they do indeed rock, so even if this doesn't last, it's worth checking out.

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