Where To Start With... The Black Keys
The phrase 'overnight success' is one that gets bandied around quite a lot in the music industry, but it doesn't really have a tangible opposite. If it did, you'd almost certainly have to apply it to the glacial rise of blues-rock duo The Black Keys.
Formed in 2001 by Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, two high school friends born and raised in Akron, Ohio, The Black Keys were inspired, somewhat unfashionably, by the music of Mississippi blues artists such as Muddy Waters and R.L. Burnside, and their early recordings typified the band's lo-fi, DIY ethos. After creating a six-track demo comprising what the band described as “old blues rip-offs with lyrics made up on the spot”, the pair managed to secure a modest record deal with small independent label Alive, for whom they recorded their debut album The Big Come Up, released in 2002.
Recorded entirely in Carney's basement using just an old 8-track recorder and two microphones bought from eBay, the album was well-received by critics, but the band struggled to raise enough funds through sales to fund a proper tour, instead mowing lawns for their landlord to raise the cash they needed. Eventually their efforts earned them a record deal with a slightly larger independent label, Fat Possum Records, who would release the band's second album Thickfreakness in 2003, as well as its 2004 follow-up Rubber Factory.
As with their debut, the albums were well-received, but failed to make any notable dent in the charts, and the pair were still struggling to get their music played on mainstream radio. However, their third album did lead to something of a commercial breakthrough. Having previously turned down a lucrative offer from an English mayonnaise company to use one of their songs in an advert, fearing they would be labelled 'sell-outs' and alienate their fanbase, when Sony Ericsson approached them about using 'Girl Is On My Mind' in a commercial for their latest phone, the pair agreed.
It proved to be a shrewd move. While the upturn in their fortunes was by no means immediate, the exposure did help the album break into the Top 20 of Australia's album chart and brought the band to the attention of Nonesuch Recordings, the Warner Bros-backed indie label for whom The Black Keys have recorded every subsequent album. While Magic Potion, their first album for the label, was anything but an instant hit, its follow-up Attack & Release saw the band recruiting a producer for the first time – namely Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton – and breaking into the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Behind the scenes, however, Carney's messy divorce and Auerbach's decision to release a solo album both contributed to escalating tensions between the two members, leading to a period when the pair didn't speak for several months. When they finally resolved their differences, Auerbach and Carney headed into the famed Muscle Shoals studio with Danger Mouse and engineer Mark Neill, pouring all of their emotions into what would become the band's sixth album, Brothers.
Yielding hits such as 'Tighten Up' and 'Howlin' For You', the album proved to be their most commercially successful yet, bagging five Grammy nominations in the process. Its follow-up, El Camino, arrived just a year later and performed even better. Once again recruiting Danger Mouse as co-producer, this time also as a co-writer on each of the album's 11 tracks, the duo were beginning to move away from their blues-rock roots and embrace a sleazy blend of glam rock and soul, scoring some of their biggest hits to date with singles 'Gold On The Ceiling' and 'Lonely Boy'. After an extensive tour in support of the album, the pair took some much needed time out, leading to a three-year gap between El Camino and their next full-length offering, 2014's Turn Blue.
Sessions for the album began well enough, but after putting down three or four tracks they were beginning to feel like they were playing it a little too safe by focussing on songs that could be singles. When they eventually reconvened, they'd evidently decided on a more exploratory approach, which saw them incorporating broader range of influences than on previous albums – a case in point being the album's meandering opener 'Weight of Love' which, at over six minutes, was their longest track on an album to date.
The five years that have elapsed since feel like an eternity for one of the most prolific bands of the last two decades, but The Black Keys return this week with their ninth full-length offering. 'Let's Rock' takes its name from the last words of convicted murderer Edmund Zagorski before his execution by electric chair – something also referenced in the album's artwork. Described by Carney as a “homage to the electric guitar”, the album takes a back-to-basics approach, with the pair self-producing for the first time since Magic Potion, and not a keyboard in sight.
You can find the video for their new single 'Go' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from their career so far as a guide for newcomers to their work...
'Girl Is On My Mind'
Possibly the band's first track to reach a mainstream audience thanks to its use in adverts and in films such as Sean Ellis' 2006 movie Cashback, 'Girl Is On My Mind' is typical of their early, blues-heavy recordings, but it's also arguably the standout moment on their third LP Rubber Factory.
With its stomping, riff-propelled verses and halftime, eerie chorus, 'Strange Times' is perhaps the track on fourth album Attack & Release that best indicates the band's direction of travel, in terms of both their songwriting and Danger Mouse's influence on the records that would follow. It's also an absolute banger.
Along with 'Howlin' For You', the third song on The Black Keys' sixth album is one of their most accomplished up until that point, allowing Auerbach's soulful vocals to shine through in a way they hadn't before. Coupled with Carney's unconventional drumming and a typically infectious melody, it's arguably the moment when the band belatedly hit their creative stride.
We could just as easily have picked the glam-rock stomper 'Gold On The Ceiling' as a standout from the band's superb seventh LP El Camino, but 'Lonely Boy' was probably the more influential song of the two in terms of cementing the band's place on mainstream radio and in the arena-sized venues the band were by now tearing to shreds. With one of the most irresistible hooks they've ever come up with, this remains one of their very best moments.
Our final pick is one of the standout moments from their most recent album Turn Blue, and one of the more immediately catchy moments on the band's most experimental album to date. Danger Mouse's presence is felt more keenly here than on any other track they've released, but Carney's stomping, four-to-the-floor drumbeat and Auerbach's driving bassline make it instantly recognisable from the get-go.
'Let's Rock' is available in hmv stores now.