Plenty of bands through the years have altered their core sound—sometimes more than once—to better fit what was popular at the time. It’s the rare band that manages to pull off the reverse and force the mainstream to come to them. But that’s more or less what The Black Keys accomplished in the mid-aughts, when they went from a niche two-piece playing Junior Kimbrough covers to a rock juggernaut that every beer conglomerate and car dealership wanted soundtracking its TV commercials. Those lucky enough to have caught guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney in about 2003 with maybe 60 people in the room couldn’t have guessed that in five years’ time these two would be headlining Madison Square Garden.
Fourteen years later, Auerbach’s second solo album, the newly released Waiting on a Song, is at once propelled and constrained by the shadow The Black Keys now cast on the American rock landscape. (Read our review of Waiting on a Song here.) The list of great bands that have spawned equally great solo acts is a painfully short one. But Auerbach has as good a shot as anyone: His voice and guitar-playing have become almost ubiquitous over the course of eight Black Keys albums and a 2009 solo debut of his own. Some of those fans who go back with The Black Keys pine for the days when Auerbach stomped around on tiny beer-soaked stages, his shouts matched by bolts of shrieking feedback and Carney’s outright abuse of his drum kit. Not everyone bought what these white guys from Ohio were selling, but if there was any doubt that The Black Keys were the genuine article, it was more or less scuttled when Kimbrough’s widow, Mildred, called them to say they were “the only ones that really, really play like Junior played his records.” The Keys were so proud they included Mildred’s voicemail as a track on their 2006 Kimbrough tribute EP, Chulahoma.
As it happened, Chulahoma, the Keys’ last recording for Fat Possum Records, was the fulcrum that put them on the path they’ve since ridden to arena shows, Grammys and Nashville estates. How did they do it? Here’s a look at all the Black Keys’ LPs, ranked in order of greatness.
The band’s most recent album takes the top spot for their most ironic title, since they’ve never been less blue—at least as far as the music is concerned. If gut-bucket blues was their original foundation, Turn Blue marks the climax of their tear-down renovation, with expensive, gleaming surfaces in place of the trusty old wood panelling, courtesy of frequent collaborator Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. The album opens with “Weight of Love,” a sprawling psych gem that promises a layered, moody batch of songs to follow. But the next 10 songs don’t quite get there. The pace feels labored on mid-tempo slinkers like “In Time,” “10 Lovers” and “Waiting on Words,” perfectly good songs that lack that familiar spark or intensity. The Keys at this point have cemented a faux-sleaze formula that cribs relentlessly from basically every single kind of American music, and this batch of tunes struggles to hide it.
Their fifth album and first for Nonesuch took considerable heat for not shaking up the guitar-and-drums-in-a-basement-with-no-heat format, especially after 2006’s high-point “Rubber Factory” had showcased an expanding sound. And it’s true: Auerbach and Carney seemed almost defiant in jumping to a bigger label and promptly burrowing into their scuzziest impulses. But if you loved The Black Keys when they came up, it’s pretty hard not to at least like this album. That electricity between Auerbach and Carney and their seriously overtaxed amplifiers is right there on “Give Your Heart Away,” “Modern Times” and “Black Door.” The two-man swing of “Just Got to Be” and “Your Touch” is primitive but potent. It’s top-shelf caveman blues, songs written on sandpaper, and if you dig it, you dig it. Plus, Auerbach breaks out his blossoming soul-man voice on “The Flame” and “You’re the One” in a tip-off to where the band would go next, so no big loss for the aesthetes out there.
After making the austere, shrug-inducing Magic Potion in 2006, it looked like the Black Keys’ well was running dry. All it took to refill it was the producer from Gnarls Barkley and Ike Turner dying. Danger Mouse had wrangled Auerbach and Carney for a collaboration with Turner, and when Turner passed away in late 2007 they were left with a bunch of songs and no singer. Turned out for the best. Attack and Release showed that Auerbach could write and play outside his established zone, as on slower, more emotive songs like the teary “Lies,” and the rueful, organ-powered “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.” Touches of banjo (“Psychotic Girl”), flute (“Same Old Thing”) and some arpeggios (“So He Won’t Break”) subtly expanded the sound, drawing the Keys closer to folk and psychedelic music. Burton’s touches, like the backing vocals on “Strange Times” and the funhouse-mirror guitars on the heavier “I Got Mine,” lent the music a funereal sheen. Attack and Release was a tentative first step into a huge period for the band, like they were walking around in a brand new suit.
In early 2003, there was already a weird two-piece garage-rock combo from the Midwest who spewed chainsaw feedback and worshipped vintage blues idols. In fact, The White Stripes’ “Elephant,” with its soon-to-be-played-in-football-stadiums-worldwide anthem “Seven Nation Army,” came out two months before The Black Keys’ debut, so it was hard not to approach “The Big Come Up” in that context. Suddenly here was a shock contender in the race for the band most likely to sound like The Flat Duo Jets. And sure, these two guys from Akron were not inventing a single thing. But from the first growling, low-fi bars of “Busted,” it was clear they’d found lightning in a basement, playing like two guys who were more amazed than anyone that they were this good. Craggy blues originals “Run Me Down,” “Countdown” and “Heavy Soul” mixed seamlessly with standards (“Leavin’ Trunk”) and covers of favorites (R.L. Burnside’s “Busted,” “Junior Kimbrough’s “Do the Rump”). Auerbach was an instant star, with his rich, raspy voice (the only real explanation being a Crossroads-style body switch) and his dual-action guitar—both completely untamed and yet in lockstep with Carney, holding down the low end while riffing on top. The Black Keys would make better albums than this one, but you can never quite recapture the “holy shit” of hearing The Big Come Up for the first time.
The Keys’ most critically acclaimed album, Brothers found them fully embracing the Danger Mouse School of Sonic Advancement they’d begun with Attack and Release, even though Mouse returned for just one song here, the bouncy hit single “Tighten Up.” On Brothers, they didn’t tear up the playbook so much as update it with more instruments (organs, drum machines, whistling), more minor chords, and a much more controlled vibe on creeping soul songs like “The Only One” and “Too Afraid to Love You,” with its Addams Family harpsichord. “She’s Long Gone” and “Next Girl” sport vintage Auerbach riffs, but where he and Carney used to bash them out fast, here they pulled way back with lurking drums and humid reverb, slathering it on rather than trampling it to death. Auerbach climbs into his highest falsetto for a faithful cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It all sounds solid enough, if a little stuck in mid-tempo and done-me-wrong lyrics. And of course it’s formulaic—something The Black Keys can’t help but be.
With a bonafide hit under their belt (2010’s Brothers), The Black Keys struck while the money was hot and made an album that was basically the soundtrack to the unlikely story of an Ohio blues-rock duo that figures out how to write bonafide hits. In the end, they get to play with all the toys—specifically, bubblegum bells and synths and elastic bass guitars. Opener “Lonely Boy” has a clap-along beat with crystalline keys glazed over top and cheesy backup singers on the chorus just for the shit of it. And it works, same as it does on poppier songs like “Dead and Gone” and the T-Rex stampede of “Gold on the Ceiling.” The Keys just seem less stiff than they did on Brothers, totally at ease with making exactly the album they wanted to make. It’s brash and playful (“Money Maker”), tongue-in-cheek glitzy (“Stop Stop”), with big hooks that are almost guilty pleasures. They go for broke on “Little Black Submarines” and just hijack Tom Petty. The anchor is still Carney, who gets his stomp back after the hard turn to moody on Brothers, keeping the show moving along with force and precision.
The Keys’ second album throws its first punch right away, with Auerbach’s guitar revving up like a coal furnace and erupting into the title song. “Thickfreakness” remains one of their best songs, a prowling blues with a face-melting rock bridge (especially in concert). It also encompassed the general direction at this point: sticking with faithful (and volcanic) blues covers (Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel,” Junior Kimbrough’s “Everywhere I Go”) and leaning to classic rock (“Thickfreakness,” “Hard Row”). At this point, though, the Keys were happy to be riff monsters, with Auerbach tearing off one after the other on lonely-boy tales like “No Trust,” “Hurt Like Mine” and “If You See Me,” all with the prodigious boogie that set these guys apart from the start. Patrick Carney’s drumming leaps a mile from The Big Come Up, adding a harder-rock dimension to songs like “Set You Free.” The album was recorded in a single 14-hour session in Carney’s basement, and there’s no room for extravagance or decor.
Rubber Factory is where the Black Keys’ songs started catching up with their phenomenal talent. They had to. By 2004, there were too many other skyrocketing bands—Strokes, Stripes, Libertines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Walkmen, et al—carving out corners of a revitalized guitar-rock landscape. Without pulling up the roots (cough Kings of Leon), Auerbach and Carney stretched out, building sturdier structures for their riffs and wringing richer flavors from the same basic ingredients—not an easy feat, as several of those aforementioned bands would attest. Opener “When the Lights Go Out” is a droney blues with a scratchy acoustic guitar out front. “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” marches with a second-line shuffle that foreshadowed more Southern-fried horizons for the band. On quieter songs like the aching “The Lengths” and a knockout cover of the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” (better than the original?), Auerbach mixed in folk and country and found a new gear, a certain sway to suit his more restrained vocals and Carney’s expanding drums. “10 A.M. Automatic” is an indie-rock confection with a closing solo that swallows the song whole. All this, and without giving an inch on the garage-blues crackle that fueled their first two albums—”Keep Me,” “Stack Shot Billy” and the psyched-out “Grown So Ugly” are maybe the duo’s three best blues recordings, all of them infused with the spirits of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, ducking and weaving on Auerbach’s nimble guitar before delivering knockout blows.