5 February 2012
If you were to attempt to design a band guaranteed to be unsuccessful, you might come up with the Black Keys. From unfashionable Akron, Ohio, they are a guitar-based band when guitar music is supposedly going the way of the dodo. The White Stripes last popularised their particular format – a guitar/drums garage-rock duo – a decade ago, when Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney started out playing to eight people. Two casually dressed dudes in their thirties, they are not archetypal pop stars.
However, 2010’s Brothers album and the recent El Camino have made them one of the biggest bands in the world. On the way, they have broadened their sound, giving their original swampy punk a sparkling new coat. Although Auerbach’s vocals are slightly distorted, like an old blues holler, they’ve turned an old-fashioned sound into something timeless, or at least retro-modern. Run Right Back and Dead and Gone are stomping, hi-tech northern soul; Gold on the Ceiling could be the Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson playing hip-hop with the Glitter Band.
The unassuming pair don’t say much beyond: “That’s Patrick on drums. My name’s Dan.” Instead, Auerbach whistles, shakes his maracas and on Ten Cent Pistol manages to mimic a mature black American female soul singer. Three additional musicians add splashes of bass and keyboards; the Keys revert to a duo to play skuzzier early material and emphasise their core strengths. Auerbach fires off Hendrix-style riffs at will, while Carney’s enormous beats belie his origins as a geeky indie kid into the Feelies. To see the gangly, bespectacled drummer whacking hell out of his kit feels as odd as watching Jarvis Cocker attempt the 1,500 metres.
But while he proves a visual spectacle, the stars here are the songs. Lonely Boy (with its big fat T Rex riff), I Got Mine and the rest seem to locate an imaginary button that makes grown adults want to play air guitar and perform drum patterns on their knees. As Nottingham roars its approval, it’s another fine victory for pop’s unlikely lads.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.