The Black Keys: thickfreakness (Black Possum)

Where the duo falls short is not in their competence, but in their inability to move forward with their basic punk-garage-Creamlike-swamphearted-blues formula.

Since the inception of the Jack and Meg White magical, musical, rock ’n’ roll juggernaut, bluesy duos have been a hot commodity in the wonderful, wave-riding world of album sales. No exception to this attention is the Black Keys, two Midwestern boys with a penchant for garage-y, stripped-down blues-rock. Guitar and drums. Sound familiar? (Ignore obvious lack of a female presence.) They brought us the Big Come Up in 2002, and while the album was incredibly earnest and raw, it lacked the staying power of a Stripes effort. Now the Keys come back, rather quickly, with thickfreakness, an album that, well, sounds a lot like the last one. Could their return be premature?

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney hail from mighty Akron, Ohio, and have learned, somewhere along the way, how to rock a lot like Howlin’ Wolf or a poor[er] man’s Credence. Auerbach’s gruff, starchy delivery packs a serious punch, and Carney’s vicious on the drums, challenging Auerbach’s ambling guitarwork with chunky beats that hit harder than any blues I’ve ever heard. Where the duo falls short is not in their competence, but in their inability to move forward with their basic punk-garage-Creamlike-swamphearted-blues formula. At points on thickfreakness, it even seems they’re slipping backward. Whereas The Big Come Up featured some vocal sampling and a great unexpected cover of “She Said, She Said,” thickfreakness offers no samples to break up the songs and only a paltry version of Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel.” And while a few tracks definitely stand out, like the especially rollicking “Set You Free” and the album’s closer, “I Cry Alone,” the latter of which contains a striking Leadbellyesque sparseness, most of the album reeks of monotony. Recorded in a single 14-hour session, one begins to wonder if the Black Keys new effort is a bit unripe for the picking. The same riffs, the same beat, even the same song length; almost all my initial interest in the Keys’ sound was gone by track five.

The Black Keys don’t have the range, or the desire, to be “the next White Stripes.” Thank God. What they do have going for them are their driving, catchy melodies and their keen ability to sound like Muddy Waters, which proves very handy, and very groovy. Their vintage approach is appealing, and thickfreakness is only disappointing because one gets the feeling the Keys could really push their rather straightforward approach further into a corner of the blues, or closer to the brash garage-punk so palpable in the album’s production. Either way, the Black Keys have seemingly chosen to rush past their laurels still fresh from last year, and thickfreakness has unfortunately suffered for it.

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