The Black Keys, it seems, are currently everyone's favourite blue-eyed blues band, occupying the spot previously occupied by The White Stripes, until Jack White dived into prog-rock and Goth diversification with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather respectively. And unlike most white boys trespassing on blues territory, this duo even seem to have won over the hearts of their black peers – which is just as well, since few young black Americans appear inclined to pursue the blues path themselves. Damon Dash picked them to provide the grooves over which his hip-hop chums rapped for the Blakroc project, on which Pharoahe Monche and RZA conceded, in a textbook back-handed compliment, "fuck the white boys, The Black Keys got so much soul."
They're right, too: soul oozes from this latest album by Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, something which may not be unconnected with its being mostly recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, birthplace of many of the greatest Southern Soul recordings, including a substantial tranche of Atlantic Records' 1960s classics by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
The in-demand producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton is less involved than on 2008's great Attack & Release, but Auerbach and Carney have sustained the sense of character and mystery he highlighted on that album, while mixer Tchad Blake has ensured the songs are swathed in haunting ambiences, however basic the settings.
In some cases, it's a simple matter of foregrounding the vibrato fuzz-guitar bassline in a song like "Next Girl", or hanging a veil of mellotron strings around the implacable "I'm Not the One". Elsewhere, more subtle balancing acts are performed, as on "Howlin' for You", spindly guitar blues anchored by Carney's lolloping Glitter Band beat, with the faintest trace of ethereal organ in perfect equilibrium with the chorus chant. But, whatever the approach, it's always in the service of the song: the guitar trills and swells of organ that appear in the bereft "Too Afraid to Love You" are like emotional bruises, bloody blooms assailing the soul of a protagonist whose "gears they grind more each day, and I feel like they're gonna grind away".
Auerbach employs falsetto sparingly, to chilly, ghostly effect when set against the burly, dirty boogie grooves, which are The Black Keys' stock-in-trade. Lyrically, too, he wields a compelling sense of menace, without slipping too deeply into the standard blues clichés. The one time the Devil puts in an appearance, in "Sinister Kid", Auerbach comes up with the evocative coinage, "That's me, the boy with the broken halo"; and he displays a similarly inventive way with the telling couplet throughout the album: "I am the bluest of blues/ Every day, a different way to lose"; "Harder than marble stone/ I'm better off left alone"; "My next girl, she'll be nothing like my ex-girl", and so on. It all adds to the impression of a new, idiosyncratic branch sprouting from this oldest of rock'n'roll roots.
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