By Malcolm X. Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
On its 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, the raw country blues sound beloved by The Black Keys dominated its songs. Guitarist Dan Auerbach gleefully adapted the licks he cribbed from studying Mississippi masters such as Junior Kimbrough (whose Do the Rump was covered) and T-Model Ford and added a reverbed garage rock twist.
On its sophomore disc, Thickfreakness, the heavy blues influence is still very much in evidence, and they again visit Kimbrough’s catalog with a faithful rendition of his Everywhere I Go. But other flavors have made their way into the mix, including more pronounced nods to garage rock (a lot of which was fuzzed-up blues), ‘60s R&B and even an indie-pop sensibility, making for more diverse songwriting.
Auerbach’s vocals are still the band’s most recognizable stamp. Belying his tender age of 23, Auerbach voice has an aching, soulful quality enhanced by his loose, slurred delivery. Consequently, even when the listener has little or no idea as to what he’s actually saying, as on the title and lead track Thickfreakness, he still conveys a worried mind.
For all of Auerbach’s blue-eyed bluesman talent as a singer and guitarist, the more upfront R&B and rock elements are a welcome addition that color the first half of the short (38-minute) CD. Hard Row is a three-minute pop song that rides along on a descending, almost folky guitar riff and Patrick Carney’s skipping beat.
Never flashy, Carney’s rhythmically elastic yet steady drumming keeps the rock foundation present in even the bluesiest songs and he never lets the bottom drop out when Auerbach solos. On Set You Free, Carney’s syncopated rumbling on the snare and toms punctuate Auerbach’s basic blues riff. Midnight In Her Eyes hints at Otis Redding/Stax-era southern R&B, and a cover of Richard Berry’s Have Love Will Travel injects more R&B flavor.
The last half of Thickfreakness sticks closer to the traditional delta blues sound, with Auerbach doing his best relaxed country picking on Hurt Like Mine and If You See Me. On No Trust, Auerbach wails his young man’s blues (“She want a simple life, she need a simple man that don’t drink or smoke, play in a rock and roll band”) over choppy dampened chords anchored by Carney’s jittery drumming, successfully conveying the tension of the lyrics.
Thickfreakness is a fine follow-up to its buzz-generating debut, but whether the Black Keys becomes the next big thing from Akron depends more on the commercial success of stripped-down rock than the strength of the CD. The duo sounds nothing like the White Stripes, the Hives or any of the other bands that received reams of critical hosannas in 2002 and sparked the most recent garage rock revival. Nonetheless, its fuzzed-up blues-based indie rock should find a welcome home on real college radio and in Europe, adding another band worthy of mention when talking of Akron’s storied music history.