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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “El Camino,” The Black Keys

16th December

By the time “Gold on the Ceiling” blasts you with a bruising nod to glam so worthy of Suzie Quatro or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie you can just see Dan Auerbach plant his tongue in his cheek as he plays, you’ve survived the convulsing adrenaline of “Lonely Boy” and the sonically massive “Dead and Gone.” It is clear by then that this is not the Black Keys from that copy of Thickfreakness you wore out back in college. Hell, it isn’t even the Keys you adjusted to on 2008’s Attack & Release, the duo’s first foray with ubiquitous producer Danger Mouse after a rudderless album in 2006’s Magic Potion.

With the exception of stunners like “You’re the One,Potion felt like the work of a band that had turned to the well of their revival rock often enough to come up dry the fourth time around. And though Attack’s more ambitious vision elicited huffs from pseudo-hipster snots who pledged their allegiance to the guys that covered The Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” eight years ago, it also was the work of a band that had discovered a side of their muse no one saw coming.

Tracks like “I Got Mine” rocked with all the blistering abandon longtime fans expected before a psychedelic interlude turned the song into a vague echo of something from one of Rhino’s mid-60s Nuggets box sets. “Psychotic Girl” laid some wicked banjo over a beat that had more in common with Portishead than pot heads, while “So He Won’t Break” joined the Ventures with the clanging glory of Tom Waits’s Frank’s Wild Years as Auerbach delivered the most stirring vocal performance of his life. The dreamy, wistful ballad “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” remains possibly the finest moment the band has put to tape and sounded like exactly nothing from prior entries in the Keys’ catalog.

El Camino, like its gloriously funkadelic predecessor Brothers, continues the Keys’ Danger Mouse experiment, but the record that emerged this time around puts its finger on an irony no band is better suited to exploit. This is a daring record not because it departs from the rock ‘ roll conventions these guys plumbed on prior albums—garage rock, blues, classic rock, psychedelia—but because it embraces those conventions more fully than ever before and without the slightest trace of shame or reservation.

“Lonely Boy’s” syrupy eruption of chintz and frat-house boogie makes it clear from the start that this will be the record the Keys have wanted to record since the day they stumbled on their parents’ LP collection but never quite found the daring to make. While the layered, half-acoustic half-garage-jam freak-out “Little Black Submarines” flaunts the duo’s affection for those Zeppelin and Tom Petty records they hummed in their sleep as kids, Pitchfork’s assertion that the song lifts “wholesale” the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is far-fetched (See RHCP’s “Dani California” for a much more obvious example of wholesale burglary). “Dead and Gone’s” guitar solo sports all the spit and gritted teeth Auerbach bared on records like Rubber Factory, but here it’s all cloaked in the more considered orchestrations Danger Mouse brings to the mix.

Yes, it’s a more polished and poppy sound, but how boring to let those misgivings get in the way of the truckload of fun this album dumps on your doorstep. That’s the line these songs draw in the mud: Either you’re willing to take yourself a little less seriously and bring a bottle of Quervo to the 11-track party these guys throw on El Camino, or you’re one of the too-cool pseudo-hipsters who can’t let go. The Keys make no apologies here to those who showed up for their shows eight years ago just because it was the hippest place to be seen at the time.

And if you thought six albums of songs full of bitter ruminations on love and loss might have been enough to smudge the hurt out of Auerbach’s heart, do not fear. Here he comes again with lines like “Your momma kept you but your daddy left you / and I should have done you the same,” or “She’s the worst thing / I’ve been addicted to / still I run right back / run right back to her.” Oh, Dan . . .

It takes an oddly cold fish to resist this record. From the aforementioned tracks to the snarling drums with which Patrick Carney buttresses Auerbach’s nasty slide guitar on “Run Right Back” through the meaty, muscular riff on “Mind Eraser,” El Camino boasts the spirit and the substance that great rock ‘n roll is made of.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Beck: Modern Guilt

28th June

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On Monday, June 9th, Beck decided to do what he always does in advance of a new album: hit the stage at the Echo in L.A. and play some crazy shit no one’s ever heard before. He continues to refer to these outings as “surprise” shows, but how much of the element of surprise Beck’s able to retain after pulling off the same thing nearly every year is probably up for debate. At this point, it’s about as surprising as that unspeakably hideous tie you gave your father this past Father’s Day (you know who you are.) In any event, Beck & Co. delivered the usual reworkings of older material–the culprit this time being tunes like Sea Change’s “Lost Cause,” dressing the song in what Stereogum calls “a My Bloody Valentin-ey fuzzed-up” sound. But the thing that made this latest “surprise” gig particularly remarkable was that Beck used it to unveil a new album which, as bits and pieces trickle down to youtube, myspace and iLike, sounds more and more like the next great Beck album: the Danger-Mouse produced Modern Guilt (out July 8th, his 38th birthday–yes, beck is 38. I know, I know. Guzzle down some Prozac with your coffee this morning and try to think about something else.)

Looking a lot like the exiled leader of some “back to the land” Hippie cult in the Santa Cruz mountains where the wife bakes loaves of macrobiotic bread inside the family tent as he guides the children through prayers to Demeter in the hope of a bountiful harvest, all Beck needed to complete a triumphant return to the original sin of rock ‘n roll that night was a dashiki, a flower in his hair, and a smoking fatty lodged in the head of his guitar . It’s easy to dismiss the whole get-up merely as Beck being the freaky mofo that he is, but when you listen to what’s available of the as-yet unreleased album on his MySpace Page, you quickly realize that there’s a reason he’s passing himself off as the ghost of Skip Spence these days (he did, after all, contribute a track to a Skip Spence tribute album back in ’99.)


Beck at the Echo: “Modern Guilt,” June 9th, 2008

Chemtrails,”one of the few tracks Beck’s teased the public with in advance of the album’s release, opens with Beck’s eerie whisper accompanied only by the hauntingly psychedelic siren of a keyboard before the whole song bursts into a funked-up shuffle of percussion and piano that exemplifies exactly the kind of aesthetic restraint we’d expect of a Danger Mouse production (an aesthetic he delivered with astonishing power on The Black Keys’ recent Attack and Release.) In a creative flourish that’s at once predictable and stirring, the whole thing is then thrown down the winding stairs of Beck’s imagination with an amped-up crescendo that is equal parts space-rock and funk, the musical equivalent of dinner at Neil Young’s house with Pink Floyd, Prince and the full line-up of Crazy Horse. It may well be the most interesting piece of music Beck’s produced since “Loser.”

Beck’s early work is brilliant because it documented the arrival of a relentless creative anxiety that had been absent from music since Elvis Costello put out My Aim is True in ’77. No one was making the kind of sound he served up with Odelay in 1996, but plenty followed suit, and that succession of imitators sent Beck on a prolonged and fascinating pursuit of another sound to call his own. never has that journey sounded so complete as it does now, as tracks like the great “Gamma Ray” reach for where he’s been as much as they arrive at where he wants to be. Like a gypsy who’s roamed the world for decades with a laundry bag of all he’s picked up along the way slung over his shoulder, “Gamma Ray” synthesizes every creative detour of Beck’s recording career, from Odelay’s “Devil’s Haircut” to that bizarre cover he did for a tribute album in the name of the aforementioned Skip Spence.


Beck’s Modern Guilt: A Preview

Modern Guilt is not so much a new album as it is a catalog of every album Beck’s ever done. It is “new” in the sense that these songs shadow every corner of Beck’s creative vision at once rather than lingering over a single passing indulgence, as steeped in the folkish flare of Mutations or Sea Change as it is in the sonic massiveness of Odelay or Midnite Vultures. The occasionally unlistenable eccentricities of The Information–a fascinating if unfocused project–are reigned in but never abandoned on Modern Guilt, a kind of grounded madness that may have made for Beck’s most accessible album in 12 years.

The Boxing Lesson: Wild Streaks and Windy Days

5th June

Boxing Lesson Live

I once found myself the pained victim of a “Punk Rock Charity Event” at an established venue in lovely Tampa, FL. Washing down a basket of blazing hot hush puppies with many gulps of Guinness, my friend, a very wise man and professor of good taste, warned me of the agonies that awaited as a 7-piece band crowded the stage with Wurlizters, triangles, musical saws, synths, dobros, guitars, bicycle bells, bass, drums, and, yes–an Electro-Theremin (No, I am not shitting you.) “I am of the opinion that a four-piece band is one piece too many,” he said, a less-is-more aesthetic philosophy proven true by bands like The Gossip, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and, as you’ll see below, a band called The Boxing Lesson. He was right, of course: the band sounded like the musical equivalent of gastroenteritis.

I promptly began scrolling the venue for the nearest emergency exit to no avail, gripping a beer with one hand and holding my head together with the other in full anticipation that it would split in three any minute. I somehow made it through the evening, but not without fleeing home to a stack of early Stones albums in the hope that they would make the world comprehensible to me once again. So imagine my euphoria upon discovering a band that relishes the deceptively boundless possibilities inherent in the three-piece concept. An up-and-coming threesome out of Austin, Texas, The Boxing Lesson betray a rather thinly veiled affinity for Pink Floyd on their new LP, Wild Streaks and Windy Days; but they roughen the edges of that influence with an open-armed embrace of Spacemen 3, The Cure, Radiohead and Broken Social Scene.


The Boxing Lesson: Dance With Meow, Wild Streaks and Windy Days (2008)

Little is left to the imagination when an album opens with a title like “Dark Side of the Moog“–just in case you questioned the veracity of comparisons to Pink Floyd–a smoking-hot and brooding intro to the brand of neo-psychedelic space rock they so proudly peddle (what the fuck is a “moog,” you’re asking–OK. Here.) “Lead Boxer, Paul Waclawsky, flexes his songwriting muscles and his space echoes like never before on this ageless recording inspired by the Austin indie music scene and radio transmissions from outer space,” they explain (in keeping with the theme, the static of those “transmissions” is heard in the fade of “Dark Side”–these guys are on top of things.) “Paul’s voice shows maturity and his epic sonic guitar textures are psychedelic and lush, like Cassiopeia A, the birthplace of the stars,” they continue. Even between the lines of the band’s own copy, you can hear vague echoes of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Consider their influences established.

And they’re not kidding–the trippy title track, which evokes vivid memories of waiting in line for another ride on Disney’s Space Mountain–really does give you the feeling that you’ve just been strapped to a rocket and sent through the sky to probe some intergalactic snowstorm. Gushing with synths that leave you wondering if this is the lost Part 10 of Floyd’s epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” the song undulates through some zero-gravity dream in a shining silver space suit while sending transmissions to rumored lifeforms on the 57th moon of Saturn. Paul Waclawsky–self-described “songwriter and astronaut”–lends his feathery vocals to cloak the tune in a distinctly airy robe of sound, a gorgeous contrast to the feedback-laden pop mastery of other tracks like the chiseled “Brighter“–the easiest pick for a summer road trip mix that we’ve heard all year.


The Boxing Lesson: “Brighter,” Live in Austin, TX (Feb. 2008)

As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own.

John Hiatt and the Scourge of a Digital World

30th May

Hiatt

It’s getting pretty clear that we’ve probably heard the last of the great John Hiatt albums. I’m not asking for another Bring the Family—records that great only grace our ears once every decade or two at best. And I’m not one of those close-minded dip shits that bitch every time his favorite band puts out a new album because “it’s not as good as the last one,” stubbornly resistant to an artist’s creative evolution. Lord knows an artist with Hiatt’s range offers something for everyone and their mother, as adept at the crooning twang of “I Can’t Wait” as he is at the lion’s-roar of rockers like “Something Wild”–to say nothing of his “I am the other Elvis Costello” days on early albums like Slug Line and Two-Bit Monster.

What I am saying, however, is that it’s been far too long since John sounded ready to abandon himself to the song, come what may, in the kind of blistering spontaneity we heard on the brilliant and rollicking Crossing Muddy Waters that scored him a Grammy nod in 2000. Hell, even The Tiki Bar is Open, for all its polish, still offered a sound that swung with two clenched fists. But, good God, Same Old Man? Master of Disaster? (album title or Freudian slip?) What’s happening to Mr. Hiatt is happening to some of America’s most prized and once-gritty songwriters, and it’s not entirely their fault, either.

It’s called “compression,” an alleged “technology” that is, ironically, doing more to set back the soul of rock n’ roll than it is to advance it. We’re told by the advocates of compression and digital recording technology that “Compression is used to bring down the highest peaks, above the threshold level, leaving the lower levels just as they were. After that the level is restored so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a much more controlled sound.” The problem, though—as albums like Hiatt’s Same Old Man or even Dylan’s Modern Times demonstrate rather painfully—is that this “controlled sound” makes for a profoundly boring listening experience, the result of a mastering process in which all instruments in the mix are compressed so that no one sound stands out over another—presumably to maintain the listener’s attention for a longer period of time as opposed to merely bearing the song until that killer guitar solo at 2:13.


John Hiatt & The Guilty Dogs: “Perfectly Good Guitar”

The result is an album full of tracks that sound more like extended yawns than songs. David Skolnik, a self-professed “audio nut” and “vinyl guy,” shares this experience with Hiatt’s 2005 album, Master of Disaster: “I had noticed the sound wasn’t very good– so I did the unthinkable and hit the tone controls on my best audio system. After a dramatic reduction of bass and well chosen treble spice, the album came to life–like the Hiatt I’ve known and loved for 20 years! What a difference,” he concluded, “this is a fine album.” Perhaps, but when you need to hit the “treble spice” and tone controls to hear that fine album hidden in the clutter, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

This is what Dylan meant when he told Rolling Stone that “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” Exactly, Bob. Now maybe he got a little carried away with the whole ”no one’s made a decent record in the last 20 years” bit, but you can understand the frustration of a guy who is responsible for some of the most essential rock n’ roll ever put to tape, a balls-to-the-wall blues-rock sound he pioneered at a time when lo-fi was the only fi. There’s a reason why The Black Keys recorded Thickfreakness in 14 hours on a ¼-inch 8-track Tascam, and it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.

As song after song unfolds on Same Old Man, John Hiatt’s latest offering, a painful fantasy enters the mind: what might this record have been had John been left to his own devices, allowed to strip each song down to nothing more than a solo acoustic performance recorded live in-studio with only a guitar and harmonica to cradle the guttural snarl of his immediately distinctive voice? What if, for once, John had tossed the band to the curb in a long-awaited realization of the power he commands when the excess is filtered from the substance (uh-hem, “Have A little Faith in Me,” “Learn How to Love You,” uh-hem)? With a record like Same Old Man, it’s clear that the vulnerability lurking beneath the surface of these new songs—mostly reflections on a 20-year marriage and entertaining memories from an even longer career—might have come to the fore, and we just might have had the album of John’s life on our hands. What a tragedy.


John Hiatt: “Cry Love,” Walk On (1995)

It truly pains me to make this argument about Hiatt’s more recent work, because few appreciate John’s neglected talents more than I do. I drove from Tampa to Nashville last year just to see John Hiatt do a brief opening set for the woeful Peter Frampton at a charity event (where, predictably, legions of burned-out Framptonites sat stone-eyed and baffled throughout a devastating solo performance by Hiatt, someone most of them had obviously never heard of before—one of many reasons why my girlfriend and I jetted out of there before Frampton took the stage with his prog-rock bullshit—at the Ryman Auditorium, of all places. Is nothing sacred?)

Hiatt’s life story is the stuff of an authenticity few songwriters can claim: his brother committed suicide, his father died when he was 11, his first wife also committed suicide (shortly after the birth of their daughter), and he spent his first night in Nashville sleeping under a park bench. He went on from there to spend nearly thirty years sleeping under another bench—this time the park bench of recognition—but this isn’t Leonard Cohen’s music scene anymore. As Tom Petty argues on his vicious The Last DJ album, fake breasts and a polished smile will sell better than a well-written song any day of the week. “Some angel whore that can learn a guitar lick / Heeeyyy, now that’s what I call muuuuzzziiiiiik!” Petty sneers on “Joe.” Hiatt is easily one of the most hard-nosed and unsung pioneers of what’s become known as “alt-country”—a sound Hiatt was making long before Steve Earle fused it with a rap sheet and boot spurs to make it cool.

Maybe it’s that same crowd of burned-own Framptonites who are currently bemoaning the loss of what they call John Hiatt’s “golden voice” on Same Old Man. “John has lost the golden voice,” someone called E.M. Witt whines in an amazon.com customer review, “his voice is gravelly and out of pitch at times.” (Oh, no! Gravelly? You mean it sounds like a real human being occasionally! Eeeww!!) And maybe it’s this crowd for whom the whole “compression” crave was fashioned. But anyone who comes to a John Hiatt record in pursuit of a “golden voice” should probably be directed to the bin of remaindered N-Synch CDs over in the corner instead.


John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith in Me,” Bring the Family (1987)

We don’t ask John for golden voiced pop ditties—we ask him to be real, give it to us straight, and take no easy turns. His voice has always been gruff, and, until recently, so was his music–and that’s what made his records so great. The problem with Same Old Man is that it is boring, and that’s not entirely John’s fault–the culprit is the same thing Dylan complained about after releasing Modern Times–digital recording technology and its “compression” approach to mastering is sucking the life out of these songs; the result is an album that more closely resembles a fleeting drizzle in a cold empty park than a record.

It happened on Master of Disaster and it happens again here. It’s a downright travesty—and I mean that. Either John can’t hear it himself or he just isn’t speaking up. As the aforementioned “audio nut” David Skolnik suggests, “I don’t think John should have to suffer a let down of his public perception because of his tech people- he deserves better!” I wholeheartedly agree, but until Hiatt hands down the ass-whoopin’ those “tech people” have earned, the decline in that “public perception” may become precipitous.

The Spill on Hiatt’s new album, Same Old Man . . .

Associated Press:Same Old Man ranks with the best music of Hiatt’s 34-year recording career . . . “

Glide Magazine: “Same Old Man may be the most accessible album of John Hiatt’s career . . .”

Thoughts of a Lime Monkey:SAME OLD MAN is not a bad record, it’s just a poor Hiatt album . . . “

411 Mania: “Hiatt puts in another solid studio album, that sorrowfully won’t get much airplay . . . “

Bamboo Nation: “Same Old Man is absent any out-of-the-ballpark, radio-friendly singles, but the album is so consistently excellent as a whole that its culminative effect is a bit disconcerting at first . . . “