The Black Keys rose to prominence the 20th century way — making records in basements and abandoned rubber factories and playing shows anywhere and everywhere and catching the rock zeitgeist just as it was ready for the Akron band's fuzzed-out, stomping, riff-heavy blues rock.
Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney rode that 10-year wave to fame, fortune and multiple Grammy Awards, and finally took a significant break after their 2014 eighth album, the beat-heavy “Turn Blue.”
While some form of blues rock revival will likely happen, the duo has grown past its early sound, and rock in most of its traditional forms isn’t the chart-owning sure thing it had been through the latter half of the 20th century.
Now, after a five-year break, the duo's longest between studio albums, the Black Keys return with “Let’s Rock,” a well-crafted, polished, back-to-basics, guitar-led record with a dozen well-written and mostly catchy songs that does indeed rock. But the 38-minute album also polishes the band’s remaining rough edges and at times feels a bit too polite and professional with less of the Akron grit and “Hey, let’s try something new” moments heard throughout the group's back catalog.
Yeah, there’s plenty of the beloved fuzzy, distorted guitars and Auerbach’s playing is spot on throughout and Carney varies his beats with groovy, toe-tapping shuffles and keeps the momentum when necessary. But fans of the grit and medium-fi grime, or the more slicker, kick-in-the-pants of hit singles such as “Lonely Boy” or “Strange Times” may find “Let’s Rock” to be a good soundtrack for the summer of 2019 (it is good music for a long drive) before reaching back into the band’s catalog for their personal favorites.
Between “Turn Blue” and “Let’s Rock,” Auerbach and Carney have filled the time professionally as artists and producers.
Auerbach got his Easy Eye Sound studio and boutique label up and running and released his second solo album, “Waiting on a Song” and an album by side group the Arcs. He also produced the Pretenders' reasonably raucous album “Alone” and one by his father, Chuck Auerbach, wrote with John Prine and recorded with one of his guitar heroes, Cleveland legend Glenn Schwartz. And the new album is being released on the Easy Eye label.
Meanwhile, Carney produced and co-wrote albums by soulful singer Jessy Wilson, 2019 tour openers *repeat, repeat, indie rock impresario Calvin Johnson and tracks by singer, songwriter and model Karen Elson, the ex-wife of ex-band rival Jack White. He got married and sired a beautiful baby boy, Rhys, with wife and singer/songwriter Michelle Branch, whose 2017 album “Hopeless Romantic” he produced and toured with as her drummer.
Both musicians also experienced heavy loss, including Carney’s beloved uncle Ralph Carney in 2017 and longtime touring band member and collaborator and friend Richard Swift and Schwartz, both of whom died in 2018.
Now, the Firestone High School grads have returned to the B.K. mothership and have landed in a different music marketplace. They are long past being the young upstarts, or the even the latest generation of arena rock stars. They are in some respects in the maintenance mode that big bands that have at least a decade of success behind them and have climbed the commercial mountain with fans still expecting some sort of “growth” and others still pining for the sound of (the favorite album that initially made them a fan). There are certainly worse places to be in a music career, and most artists trudge ahead creating rather than worrying about fan and critical reaction, or charts and other things they can’t control. U2 has been maintaining for more than a decade and it's doing just fine.
“Let’s Rock,” morbidly named for the last words of a death row inmate shortly before execution, hence the cover photo, finds the duo in streamlined form.
The vaguely psychedelic haze and low-end heavy grooves and world-weariness in Auerbach’s voice on “Turn Blue” have been replaced with a dozen taut, tightly arranged and focused tunes all under four minutes and nearly half of them under three. And, after recording four albums with producer Danger Mouse, the Black Keys have hit the back-to-basics button and co-produced the album themselves with only vocalists Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson as guests, no keyboards and Auerbach’s guitar dominating the tunes.
The pre-release singles ride bluesy bouncing beats. The catchy, ready-to-be-licensed “Lo/Hi,” featured in an ESPN commercial has a familiar, mid-tempo, bluesy riff and a big chorus and managed to simultaneously top four separate Billboard charts: Mainstream Rock, Rock Airplay, Alternative Songs and Adult Alternative Songs, a first for any group, so clearly there are fans waiting for some rock 'n' roll. “Eagle Birds” skips along on a bouncy, upbeat-accented groove and essentially conveys the overall tone of the album.
Opener “Shine A Light” begins with Auerbach’s familiar, piercing fuzz tone and some welcome down-stroked power chords before settling into the now familiar BK groove. Any longtime fans still clinging to the riff-heavy sound of “Rubber Factory” or the grimy jams of “Attack & Release” should be momentarily satiated while fans of the poppier arena years get the peppy, pleasantly rocking, sure-to-be-in-a-2020-coming-of-age-movie single “Go,” with its snaking, singalongchorus that recalls some of “El Camino’s” earworm tracks.
Throughout the album, Auerbach’s voice — once praised as sounding preternaturally gritty and aged — has naturally aged into a smooth, relaxed tenor relying more on his expanded melodic sense then guts. It also appears that his time spent writing with other respected professional Nashville songwriters has seeped into the mellower tracks such as the “Turn Blue”-ish “Tell Me Lies,” and the sleepy-paced and sweet, declaration of devotion “Walk Across the Water,” which will surely inspire many rockin’ moms and dads to hold hands and mouth the words to each other as the band crisscrosses the country this year.
“Let’s Rock” is a solid, tuneful, well-constructed album of solid and confidently well-constructed and produced fat-free tuneful songs. That alone will appeal to many fans as evidenced by “Lo/Hi’s” record-setting chart presence and it’ll do fine and keep the arenas filled with multiple generations of fans.
The band has always treated the studio as a separate beast from the stage, so hopefully, when the Black Keys hit the rebranded Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (formerly known as the Q) in September, they’ll add a layer of sweat and energy to the new songs.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.