When a group from Akron, Ohio called the Black Keys released their first album in 2002, the rock scene was ready for it. The Black Keys brought a bluesy spark back into popular music.
Their debut album has all the swagger of a band that knows it will be well received, and in a display of foresight, they called the album The Big Come Up. The Black Keys are actually a duo, consisting of guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney.
The unwashed, lo-fi sound of The Big Come Up is a result of recording the entire album on an 8-track in Carney’s basement. Their follow-up album, Thickfreakness, came out a year later and was recorded in the same location.
From the slow-building guitar lick on the first track, which blossoms into a foot-tapping riff that carries us all the way through the perfectly paced “Busted,” listeners know they are in for an album with swagger.
Curiously, the first two tracks are not originals, though the Black Keys approach them with enough authority that it might be hard for the casual listener to guess as much.
“She Said, She Said” is a Lennon/McCartney composition. “Do the Rump” belongs to fifties-era blues guitarist Junior Kimbrough, out of Mississippi. In 2006, the Black Keys released an album dedicated entirely to Kimbrough covers, called Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough.
The first original track we hear is “I’ll Be Your Man,” which has gone on to accumulate some popularity as the theme song for the HBO series, Hung. It is chugging and grungy, yet direct and simple in its composition and message. The steady percussion, textured with shimmying maracas, backs the chorus: “I’m the one who’s gonna show / When there’s nobody / I’ll be your man.”
When the Black Keys do pen their own songs, the lyrics remain true to the heartbroken but resilient attitude of old blues songs. Track eleven, “Yearnin,” does not falsely advertise: it digs into a worldwide sentiment, opening with “Said I want you here with me / Darling I need you / Can you see I got the yearnin” and closes with the repetition of “Darling I need you.”
In “The Breaks,” the song starts with a modern touch: a sampled, forties-sounding quote that invites listeners to “Lean forward slightly, look straight at the speaker, and listen with a sparkle in your eye…thinking ‘gee, this is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard in all my life.’” The quote is then torn into by a distorted, wailing guitar. It at once pays homage to tradition and consciously breaks from it.
But that’s what the Black Keys excel at. The band’s popularity only continued to grow as pop culture picked up on the band’s reintroduction of those elements that gave blues its soul. They have the skill and the confidence. Songs from later albums have appeared in School of Rock, Black Snake Moan and Zombieland, among other movies and shows. The Black Keys’ 2010 album, Brothers, was nominated for multiple Grammy and Billboard awards. Their most recent effort, El Camino, released on October 26th of 2011, was listed at number twelve on Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of the year.