Songs in the key of quirk

Pub date September 5, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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“Let’s bleed orange and brown all over this town.” Is it possible for such words of wisdom to induce skull fractures? Try inhaling this foul stench of a battle cry from doomed Cleveland Browns fans for 22 seasons as an Ohio resident, and you tell me if your gray matter doesn’t feel starved for another kind of enlightenment. Hailing from “the Mistake on the Lake,” a.k.a. northeastern Ohio, does have its share of rewards and quirks. The rent is supercheap and Black Label Beer is a staple in every twentysomething’s diet. We have LeBron James — ’nuff said. If Drew Carey says it’s cool, then our shit don’t stink, right? Maniacal football fiends, burning rivers, insatiable femmes, sweltering summer humidity versus punishing winter blizzards, and Dave Grohl — nothing resonates louder than these two Buckeye Belt principles: we like to put things into perspective and we have our dignity.
Musically speaking, Ohio’s rock ’n’ roll scene is engrossing and tends to personify a hearty DIY blend of blue-collar garage rock and trash punk. Given the nature of its factory-fraught makeup and economic turmoil, it only seems natural that listening to bands such as Deep Purple and David Lee Roth–era Van Halen never really goes out of style. Just 30 minutes south of Cleveland, in the tar-smothered tire kingdom of Akron, the shoddy atmosphere hasn’t changed much either. On any given night, it’s common to walk into a pub and see drunk boys and girls washing down greasy cheeseburgers and salted vinegar potato chips with pint glasses of Pabst Blue Ribbon to the soundtrack of gnarled fuzz and pealing feedback blowing out of a guitar amp. Sure, northeastern Ohio might lack the utopian hipster hangouts of Brooklyn and post-rock wet dreams of neighboring Chicago, but it makes up for it with character and remains home to a neglected crew of groundbreaking art rockers, new wavers, and experimental weirdos: the Dead Boys, the Pagans, Devo, the James Gang, Pere Ubu, and the Rubber City’s favorite twosome of blues breakers, the Black Keys.
The band’s drummer, Patrick Carney, reassured me in a recent phone interview that the “bright lights, big city” aspect of places like New York is nothing to write home about. “I find it all to be very boring,” he says. “I’d much rather hang out with someone who delivers pizzas and watches Roseanne all day than with someone who has a cool electronic record collection.”
Since the duo’s inception five years ago, Carney and vocalist-guitarist Dan Auerbach have gone from packing small clubs to selling out big concert halls with their raw, bluesy hooks and vintage rock harmonies — and they show no signs of letting up any time soon. Already three albums deep, the Keys unleash their most emphatic and primal offering to date on their Nonesuch Records debut, Magic Potion. Sporting a grittier AOR edge than some of the band’s past records and proving their loudest effort since 2003’s Thickfreakness (Fat Possum), Magic Potion is dynamic in rhythm and scope and effectively captures the Midwestern sound the group was aiming for.
“Basically, we wanted to make a loud fucking rock ’n’ roll album,” Carney says with a laugh. “One you can drink a beer to and everything’s turned up to 11.”
The beauty of the Black Keys is their unpretentious approach to songwriting. Rather then tearing a song apart measure by measure, Auerbach and Carney zero in on the medley and let their instruments do the rest of the talking. The pair write songs that are straight from the heart — integrating the southern blues swagger of Junior Kimbrough and Jimmy Reed with the stripped-down, FM-friendly magnificence of Led Zeppelin and Cream, with heavy emphasis on the latter. Auerbach’s vocals stretch from raspy howls to soothing strains while he coats infectious riffage and fiery chops with muddy layers of distortion.
Carney is no slouch either — pummeling his kit like Bill Ward on yellow jackets. The two structure the songs on Magic Potion in a fashion that sounds genuine and antiquarian without contrived overdubs, those that Carney describe as “very hi-fi.”
“Just Got to Be” opens the album with husky, Southern-rooted guitar and crashing cymbals, then hushes up for a second as Auerbach pleads, “I’ve got to go because/ Something’s on my mind/ And it won’t get better/ No matter how hard I try.” Tenderly felt ballads (“You’re the One”), psychedelic Brit-blues (“The Flame”), and monolithic rockers (“Give Your Heart Away”) follow.
It’s obvious that success hasn’t gotten to the heads of Auerbach and Carney, even after notable tours opening for the likes of Beck, Sleater-Kinney, and just earlier this summer, Radiohead. They have definitely grown as musicians since their days of banging up basement walls with muck-covered din yet still manage to firmly hold on to their signature sound and bust out solid pieces of reputable work. Ultimately, the band contradicts the age-old myth of rock ’n’ roll: it never really vanished — it just needed a good kick in the ass to get it out of bed. SFBG
With Beaten Awake
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