Throughout the past few years, I have been regularly checking on YouTube and Spotify for any action by the blues-rock band The Black Keys. So you could imagine, I was pretty stoked when finally, a few months ago, Lo/Hi popped up on my radar. After five years of silence, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are finally carrying on their musical legacy.
Giving Blues-Rock a fresh styling
Let’s Rock is the Ohio-based Duo’s ninth studio record. 2002 marked their first ever release The Big Come Up, a raw and gritty stripped back blues rock record. My personal favorite form the debut record Heavy Soul has a secure and standing spot on my Black Keys playlist. Their first musical effort is a wild and experimental affair but it does not really know where it wants to go. Then, the shortly following records spoke of an impressive and fast evolving skill and vision of the drummer and guitarist.
The rootsy hard-hitting Rubber Factory to the beautifully noisy and strange Attack & Release, these two always knew how to shred out a riff that moves. After a few albums that went on by rather quietly, Brothers marks their first commercial success. And oh, do Everlasting Light and Tighten Up still give me goosebumps. The funky guitar riffs, the laconically slurred vocals, and the raw fuzzy vibe – the blues-rock in the 21st century had really gotten a fresh styling.
Gotta Get Away
The 2011 El Camino still contained the same energetic and rebellious rock energy as the previous record but lets some softer strings shine through. One of my favorite heartbreak songs Little Black Submarines merges steely hard rock riffs with mellow and moving lyrics, displaying the fragility and the anger following heartbreak perfectly.
Then in 2014 something entirely new happened – Turn Blue. The record is different from anything else the Keys have ever done and a musical masterpiece (that even I – a die-hard blues fan – celebrated). The use of modern elements and keys made for a slightly trippy vibe and lyrically this one is a hell of a ride (one or the other song found a spot on my very own Turn Blue playlist). If I were to name my favorite song off that LP, I would have a pretty damn hard time but how about 10 Lovers? Or Fever? Or the title-track? Or Gotta Get Away – what seems to be what the duo had to do after such extensive touring and recording for more than a whole decade.
Well, you get it. I do dig The Black Keys. So when I finally gave Let’s Rock a spin I didn’t really know what to expect, leaving aside the painfully uncreative and blunt title of the record. In the end, I would say the album is neither absolutely mind-blowing nor easily dismissible. Auerbach and Carney do still have some moves as they show on the LP but seem less eager to pour their heart and soul into it. As the title already hints, this LP is a return to the band’s roots: drums, strings, and vocals.
The entire record is an ‘homage to the electric guitar’ as Carney put it and the cover image of an electric chair plays with that theme. That vibe certainly stands out on the opening track already. Shine A Little Light comes with such a heavy and groovy guitar riff, that it almost reminds of something out of AC/DC’s register. The hard and gritty guitar is followed by more melodic and stripped back verses. Lo/Hi I had already been listening to for a while when the album dropped, and it never ceased to entertain me. The stadium-ready chorus and the energetic guitar strums powered by a relentless drum-kit, make this one the perfect song to boost your confidence. And the screeching guitar solo proves that Auerbach can tame the six-string.
But as fantastic as those tracks might sound at the first listen, the not even three-minute length makes sense as the creative and experimental backbone is missing. Lyrically as well, Let’s Rock does not live up to its ancestors. The cheesy soft rock ballad Walk Across The Water almost sounds like it took the wrong turn to end up on a Black Keys album. ‘I walk across the water for you’ Auerbach croons emotively but does not reach the emotional intensity previous songs like the painfully beautiful Waiting on Words did.
Fun energy but no depth
To cut The Black Keys a little bit of slack here; they were not trying to create a musical monument. They are just letting their spontaneous energies flow and are having a whole lot of fun. This, and nothing more is exactly what Let’s Rock sounds like – a fun easy-listen rock album that draws on the roots of the band but does not quite reach. The solos are explosive but seem like contained fires compared to the unstoppable crashing riffs of Rubber Factory and co. ‘Don’t Nobody Wanna Be Lonely / Everybody Oughta Be Loved Sometimes’ these rather dull and impersonal lines of Eagle Birds cannot touch the previous poetic and moving songwriting. The lyrics on this LP serve functional purposes but do not dig deep.
Nevertheless, the groovy hooks and the simple approach towards songwriting make this one an enjoyable ride. So, there lies no harm in rocking out to Under The Gun’s resonating ZZ-top-tinged strums and the crowd-pleasing stadium grandeur. And dwelling in Get Yourself Together’s electrically loaded boogie energy. Or indulging in the simple and sweet country-tinged Sit Around And Miss You’s unpretentious melodies. As long as you do not expect it to fill the shoes of the legacy The Black Keys have worked so hard to build over the last decade, you will enjoy this one just all right. Meanwhile, I will give the good old stuff another spin because let’s face it; what this band created over the years won’t easily find its match.