Tunes Test Tuesday: The Black Keys

The original idea behind Tunes Test Tuesday was to expose myself (not that way, sicko) to a new album, er, record, wait, CD, no, it’s a…well, damn, what do you call them nowadays?  It’s not really a record or CD – the "D" standing for disc, a round physical object, if you’re too young to remember those things – if it just appears magically on your computer from the invisible tunnels of the interwebs. 

I guess I’ll stick with "album".

Anyway, the original idea was to try out one new album every week of 2012, and maybe even beyond.  And yet, here we are, only at week 2, and I’m already screwing up the system.

Because this week, one album wouldn’t do it.  Nope, this week, I had to listen to pretty much everything The Black Keys have ever made.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure exactly where to start this week as the world is full of performers I’m not acquainted with. As luck would have it, though, when I posted a tweet that I was debating my options, mentioning The Black Keys – a two-man group originally consisting of only guitar and drums – one of my contacts gave me the heads up to start with their 2003 release, Thickfreakness, rather than with the latest stuff.

And damn if I’m not glad he did.

I really liked Thickfreakness and the album before it, The Big Come Up.  My understanding is that all the The Black Keys’ early albums were produced by themselves, indie-style.  One can only assume that took place in the proverbial suburban garage.  The sound is a little rough, and I struggled a bit to catch the lyrics in their early works, but that’s mostly my fault.  As I’ve said before, music is something I’ve always tended to have on in the background.  And to really give a piece it’s due, one ought to actually listen.

When I did start to listen, though, I was hooked.  I’ve always been a sucker for blues guitar, but my exposure to it’s been pretty limited.  Before this week, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything with as much sheer bluesy power as The Black Keys.  If you said to me, "Blues Rock", it is almost exactly the sound my mind would fuse together.

In fact, within 15 minutes of firing up Thickfreakness, I thought to myself how awesome it would have been to hear The Black Keys killing tracks from it in a sweaty, seedy, little club packed shoulder to shoulder and reeking with the stench of old cigarette smoke and stale beer.

But that might just be me.  I make up scenes in my head, you know.

What I find even more interesting is the contrast between the older albums and the newer.  Attack & Release (2008) was produced in an actual studio with an actual producer, Danger Mouse, for a major label and was followed by Brothers in 2010.  Both have been commercially successful and get outstanding reviews.

Truth be told, though, they don’t light my fire.  Sure, there are tracks I enjoy.  Overall, though, the feeling is different.  A little more bluesy, maybe, definitely more soulful, but, well, less rock.  With a few exceptions, both albums just lack the same overall power I mentioned before.  That’s fine, though, really; it demonstrates a necessary evolution for the band.  It just doesn’t get my blood pumping.  I don’t know that I’ll ever listen to either again from start-to-finish.

Turning on to The Black Keys this week has been something of an adventure for me and potentially even points to my own growth musically.  In the past, I’ve pretty much been the poster child for buying whatever Corporate Music wanted me to.  I’ve committed all the sins: buying an CD for one song and never listening to it, being snookered all the way to the cash register by the suggestively pretty girl on an album cover, allowing Top-40 radio to tell me what I liked even though I had no idea what else was out there.  Hell, I even bought a Spice Girls (Girlz? I can’t remember.) CD once.

Mostly, my past behaviors can be blamed on the fact that music has largely been a secondary thing in my mind for the latter part of my life.  It might play in the background, it might not, but I rearely really thought about it and certainly never actually listened.

Well, I started listening again this week with The Black Keys.  Admittedly, their music isn’t something I want to hear every day – I think it’ll be one of those mood kinda things – and their newer stuff doesn’t compel me to pay attention quite like the older albums do.  But it’s shown me that yes, I can hear and feel the difference between contrasting production methods and believe it or not, sometimes the rougher cuts can be more evocative, even preferred, over ones that are more tightly, smoothly made.

And sometimes, it all comes down to whether or not the listener is actually listening.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet.


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