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Black Keys

Black Keys

Rock music and advertisers have had a checkered relationship. In fact, for a long time there was no relationship at all. Musicians often didn't want to license their songs for commercials because they felt it cheapened their "art." When publishing contracts allowed songs to be used without a band's permission, it was the fans who got up in arms. And even when a group/performer wanted to license a song, they asked for a fortune.

So why spend half your advertising budget to use a tune that might tick off fans, the very people you're trying to reach? Maybe a better course is to find an up and coming band that will license their music cheap and appreciate the exposure.

Though Black Keys' "Girl Is On My Mind" was heard in an '06 Sony Ericsson ad (for mobile phones), it was Victoria's Secret's use of "The Desperate Man" that turned heads, and not because the commercial featured Heidi Plum (OK, maybe it was mostly Plum).

Formed in Akron, OH, the one-time bowling capital of America, Blues-Rock duo Black Keys was part of the early 00's lo-fi movement (stripping away all the technical enhancements to get to a more organic or real sound). Oddly, they didn't acquire their name from a piano (the black keys are the flats or sharps, depending on the key). Turns out, the group took their moniker from a term an artist friend used to describe things he didn't like or trust.

Black Keys' 02 debut, "The Big Come Up," was recorded in 14 hours in Pat Carney's basement using an '80s Tascam deck. And just as planned, that's exactly how it sounded.

"Thickfreakness" rolled out in 03. "Set You Free" wound up in the Jack Black flick School Of Rock. "Rubber Factory" was 04's effort and a live DVD recorded in Sydney, Australia, arrived a year later. Paying tribute to Mississippi Blues musician Junior Kimbrough, Black Keys recorded six of his songs for the May, '06, EP "Chulahoma." A few months later (September), the full-length, "Magic Potion," the group's first release on Nonesuch records, dropped.

'08 saw the arrival of "Attack & Release." The set, produced by Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), featured the single "Strange Times." There was concern Danger Mouse, a Trip-Hop innovator, might alter Black Keys sound. Considering DM founded the hugely successful Gnarls Barkley (with Cee-Lo) and produced "The Grey Album" (his remix of "The Beatles - White Album" and Jay-Z's "The Black Album") to say nothing of his solo career, had Black Keys fans on edge. But Danger Mouse had also produced Sparklehorse's "Dreamt For Light Years In the Belly Of A Mountain" ('06) and The Good, The Bad And The Queen's self-titled debut ('07), so Black Keys weren't entirely unfamiliar turf.

Prior to the release of "Attack & Release," Black Keys embarked on a successful tour which resulted in the Black Keys Live At The Crystal Ballroom DVD. Then the pair busied themselves with outside projects. Auerbach issued his solo debut, "Keep It Hid" and Carney joined Drummer, a band consisting of Ohio-based drummers. For this project Carney played bass. Their debut album, "Feel Good Together," was also out in '09.

A year later, Black Keys regrouped to issue "Brothers which sold over 73,000 copies in its first week landing at #3 on the Billboard Albums chart. Also, the single "Tighten Up" topped the US Alternative charts. It was later named the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the 53rd Grammy Awards.

Rolling Stone magazine placed "Brothers" at #2 on the Best Albums of 2010 list (behind Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"). Meanwhile over at Spin magazine, The Black Keys were the Artist of the Year for 2010.

"Chop And Change," which was not on "Brothers," appeared on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack. The Black Keys then released an iTunes Sessions which was part of a series of live albums released exclusively on iTunes. And to round out the year, they received Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Alternative Album (which they won).

In March, '11, Black Keys began work in Nashville, at Auerbach's studio, on their seventh studio effort, "El Camino." They took a break from recording to headline the 10th annual Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, TN.

"El Camino" featured the single "Lonely Boy" which Auerbach described as "raw, driving, and back to basics." The accompanying video, which logged slightly less than four million YouTube views, had a man dancing outside his office while lip-syncing the words to the song.

Meanwhile, the album sold 206,000 copies in its first week to debut at #2 on the Billboard Album Chart (behind Michael Buble's "Christmas"). It was a career best for the duo.

Black Keys issued a six-song EP in '12 titled "Tour Rehearsal Tapes." The set featured live-in-the-studio versions of four songs from the platinum-selling "El Camino" ("Dead And Gone," "Gold On The Ceiling," "Lonely Boy" and "Run Right Back"), and a pair of tunes from "Brothers" ("Next Girl" and "Tighten Up"). The EP, recorded in late '11 while prepping for an upcoming tour, was initially available exclusively on iTunes.

Not everything was in harmony. Auerbach went through a nasty divorce in '13. His ex-wife, Stephanie Gonis, received $5 million. But here's the kicker. She was also awarded one of Auerbach's prized possessions - a lock of Bob Dylan's hair.
Black Keys Discography

Studio Releases:

2002 The Big Come Up
2003 Thickfreakness
2004 Rubber Factory
2006 Magic Potion
2008 Attack & Release
2010 Brothers
2011 El Camino


2004 The Moan
2006 Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
2006 Your Touch - The EP
2012 Tour Rehearsal Tapes

Grammy Awards:

2011 - Awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Tighten Up".
2011 - Awarded Best Alternative Music Album for "Brothers."
2011 - Awarded Best Recording Package for "Brothers."

Auerbach must have spent half his life listening to late 40's/50's Chicago Blues. He does a good job channeling the sound through his down and dirty guitar and crude recording techniques. Seeping through is what sounds like a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page, when the then-session guitarist occasionally issued a Blues track.

Due to the sparse arrangements (though the guitar is sometimes double tracked) and the absence of a bass player there is an improvised, loose, open feeling to Black Keys songs. It's like listen to a couple musicians in a dank club at 1:00 am.

The biggest challenge facing a group like Black Keys is overcoming a duo's limits. Early on, they were listed as contemporaries of another pair, the White Stripes. But there was a significant difference. Jack White changed things up, adding an acoustic guitar here, piano there (a bass on "Seven Nation Army!") or lacing songs with pop or even cabaret touches. Black Keys don't go there.

"Busted" and "I'll Be Your Man" are prime examples of the Chicago influences that dominate "Big Come Up." From out of left field, there's also a surprisingly good cover of John Lennon's "She Said, She Said."

"Thickfreakness" goes down the same road but less effectively. Little wonder "Set You Free" was the track selected for a film appearance. "Rubber Factory" relies more on Rock and less on the Blues. Good move. The chord slashing "The Desperate Man" and "Girl Is On My Mind," with a ton of hot licks, deserve attention. However, the uptempo "Aeroplane Blues" is the set's killer track.

Riding a catchy riff, "Strange Desire," jumps out from "Magic Potion." "Modern Times" is nearly as good. "Just Got To Be" and "Just A Little Heat" are good Blues variations but nothing exceptional.

It's evident the album has a bit of a problem. Black Keys cover ground they have previously tread. Of course, if this is the listener's first exposure it'll all sound intriguing.

With the exception of an embellishment here or a flourish there, Danger Mouse leaves Black Keys unmolested - free to do what they do best - which is the sign of a good producer. Black Keys aren't compromised by pop sensibilities nor are they buried. Their trademark Blues-Rock is intact and is as gritty and appealing as ever. "I Got Mine" and "Remember When (Side B)" kick like nobody's business. "Lies," "Same Old Thing" and "Strange Times" are a bit slower but they're still tough and edgy. The album opens and closes with ballads. They're OK but there's a lot more meat in between.

The rough-edges and spontaneous sounds that make Black Keys so appealing are present on "Keep It Hid" but they are different. There are songs that come close to Black Keys efforts, "Mean Monsoon" and "The Prowl," in particular. Those songs aside, the album dwells on straight-ahead Blues. The title track sounds like it was recorded at Chess studios in the late '40s. "Street Walkin' could have been laid down a decade later in Chicago. It's the kind of Blues track Stevie Ray Vaughan would have covered.

Auerbach draws from Bob Dylan on the acoustic Country-flavored "Trouble Weighs A Ton" and Sam Cooke for "When The Night Comes." "When I Left The Room" is reminiscent of John Lennon's early Plastic Ono Band period.

Somewhat similar to Black Keys, the arrangements are basic; solo guitar to a trio/quartet but the songs seem more thoughtful and practiced. That's not a criticism, just a recognition that Auerbach is operating in another mode.

With the side projects completed, "Brothers" marks a return of the Black Keys take on '50's Chicago electric Blues and early 60's R&B - in other words, their sweet spot. This time Auerbach uses Carney's recent divorce as a touchstone for a handful of songs - "Too Afraid To Lose You," "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Next Girl" in particular.

"Everlasting Light" sounds like Dave Edmunds' follow-up to "I Hear You Knockin'." "Howlin' For You," a Blues boogie, opens with the line "all right, there's something wrong." Similar disarming lyrics highlight "Sinister Kid" ("boy with the broken halo - that's me") and "The Go Getter" ("different way to lose").

"Brothers" builds on the "Attack & Release" template but the DIY ethos remains. Here too, the arrangements are integral rather than ornamental.

The genius of the Black Keys is that they can take fans down familiar roads and make it all sound fresh and spontaneous. "El Camino" proves that success hasn't changed them.

Set opener, and lead single, "Lonely Boy" is one of the catchiest songs the Black Keys have ever produced. "Hell Of A Season" rides a slashing guitar while "Dead And Gone" and "Little Black Submarine" proffer the band's unhinged Blues. They sound the way they do because that's the way they are.

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