Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen
With their latest release, the Black Keys already begin messing with our heads before we’ve even listened to a single note. The album’s title, “Let’s Rock”, appears on the cover exactly that way – in quotes. Just what are we supposed to make of this? The phrase itself is both generic and somewhat antiquated, and since the Sixties (or earlier) has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. In 2019, does it still mean loud ripping power chords? Or is it more of an overall attitude? And are framing the words in quotes somehow suggesting, that on some level, it’s all just a big pose?
This is probably best answered by the music itself, as fortunately the Black Keys’ ninth full-length release proves that the title is no empty gesture – quotes or not – with a dozen cuts of pleasant, solid Sixties and Seventies influenced rock, getting right down to business with the opening cut “Shine a Little Light.” “Go,” as the title might suggest, is even more right to the point. While “Breaking Down” starts with a George Harrison-type guitar riff before breaking into an almost funky shuffle beat and finally a grandiose arena rock chorus before right going back again, all in seamless balance.
Throughout “Let’s Rock”, drummer Patrick Carney illustrates that he’s no sideman, putting forth a variety of strong beats which hold the songs together. Though equally proficient on all the other instruments, lead singer Dan Auerbach’s vocal resemble to Paul Rodgers is at times almost frightening, although the Black Keys on the whole are probably closer to the British legend’s early outfit Free than the better-known Bad Company. “Under the Gun” even resembles Free’s signature hit “All Right Now” with perhaps a hint of an R&B staple “Knock on Wood” (no, not the disco version).
However, the Black Keys also pay homage to some of the sounds of rock circa 1970, which at the time was more likely to be heard on AM radio than at the original Woodstock. This includes the mid-tempo “Walk the Line,” which is very much in the vein of Tommy James’ hit “Draggin’ the Line” (the title might not be a coincidence). While the cry-in-my-coffee anthem “Sit Around and Miss You” is stuck with a strong similarity to Scottish band Stealers Wheel’s 1973 track “Stuck in the Middle with You” (which you probably know from Reservoir Dogs).
Today’s millennials are not walking around with these artists’ logos on t-shirts. But (assuming the world is still here), will young people, or for that matter anyone, be proudly sporting Black Keys t-shirts in another half-century? The band – which, in the studio at least, consists only of Auerbach and Carney – if nothing else appears to have already made their mark on rock in the twenty-first century, which should remain intact with this release. Despite their obvious influence of the sounds of bygone eras, the Black Keys seem to have wisely avoided anything resembling the nostalgia trap, which probably doomed other bands like the Black Crowes and the Strypes from having any sort of longevity. There may be those who rock harder than the Black Keys, but in 2019 what hopefully still counts is that they rock honestly (note the lack of quotes around that statement).