Friday, November 2, 2012

Battle of the Bands: Jack White v. The Black Keys

The Black Keys and The White Stripes have long been lumped together by some disinterested music listeners and mistaken for each other by others. People who really know the score do not have any problem distinguishing the two. However, the bands do have similarities. They are both 2 member rock bands from the Midwest with a foundation in blues. Not to mention their ying and yang band names. Now that they are each in their second decade of music excellence and both have new-ish records out, it’s a good time to discuss their latest efforts.

The Black Keys released their new album, El Camino, just after the close of the Big Sexy Fiscal year, thus making it ineligible for Big Sexy Album of the Year. That title went to Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light in a ceremony held off-site at the Marriott Anaheim Hills. I loved Wasting Light as you can see from my album review from last year. I stated, with considerable hyperbole, that it would go wire-to-wire for the Album of the Year title. That is a hard feat to pull off as I usually lean toward an album that lights my fire near the second half of the year.

The unfortunate release date of El Camino by The Black Keys eliminated it from the 2011 prize and makes it difficult to take home the 2012 prize. It is clearly an excellent album. My lone criticism of 2010’s Brothers album was that it was a bit long. I’m sure the Keys liked every song, but to me, the back half of the album was long on filler. El Camino came in at a tight 38 minutes of rock excellence. From the opening chords of Lonely Boy, I knew the Black Keys had knocked it out of the park. The Black Keys keep getting better and better.

I think the major influence in their improvement from butt-kicking to kick-ass is the presence of Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse can produce. Danger Mouse is the not-as-fat-as-a-house half of Gnarls Barkley. But he has risen to more prominence in recent years for his production chops. He has 5 Grammy nominations for Best Producer since 2005. He produced Demon Days for Gorillaz, turned James Mercer of the Shins into Broken Bells and is currently working with U2.

I’m not in the studio with them; I think the second hand smoke would be too dense. But since Danger Mouse has been production their albums, the Black Keys have a fuller sound and a more polished finish. Usually saying a rock band is more polished is a bit of a dig. Everyone wants their rocks bands to sound like they are just shredding in their garage. The problem was that The Black Keys sounded like they had not yet made it into the garage. They have always been a blues band first that had rock sensibilities. Now they are more of a rock band with hat tip to their blues roots.

El Camino not only has great guitar licks and a bluesy sensibility. It has great hooks, some backing vocals and multiple instruments. There will be songs in the Big Sexy top 20 songs of the year (Run Right Back) and on the 2012 Big Sexy Cool Out list (Little Black Submarines). Despite, or maybe because of, this increased production value, it is an excellent rock and roll record. 4 ½ stars!

Jack White has been prominent in my life and in my ears for a bit longer than The Black Keys. As the creative and talented half of The White Stripes, Jack White opened my ears to a whole different sound. His blend of Motown, folk, blues and punk was unlike anything I had heard before. There was such simplicity in the guitar/drum combination, but such diversity in what Jack could do with his axe. The White Stripes were a punk band that acknowledged their blues and folk roots.

Jack White is a weird dude. From the odd-color combinations to pushing off his ex-wife band mate as his sister, it is hard to pin this guy down. My guess is that he needs some therapy, but that can be said for all genius artists. The Black Keys seem like guys I would love to share a case of PBR's with on a Wednesday night. I’m not sure I would actually want to spend any time with Jack White.

After continuing to make music with the pretty good Raconteurs and the pretty disappointing Dead Weather, Jack White released his first solo album, Blunderbuss, earlier this year. This puts him in the same Big Sexy Album of the Year discussion as The Black Keys. I was concerned with Blunderbuss before I heard it. The further Jack White was getting from the White Stripes the less I liked his sound.

I was very pleased that the first time I heard the first single, Love Interruption, it was apparent that the Jack White who can light up my car stereo was back. It is a slow building song, which never really does hit the emotional release that the lyrics require. (Is that a clarinet??) I don't know what has gone on with Jack and his model/actress-wives, but this cat no longer wants to fall for the treacherous wiles of love.

The first half of the album is rock solid with the possible exception of the title track. Blunderbuss, the song, seems like an end-of-the-album wind down, not something splashed at cut #5. The album has much more diversity than a White Stripes album. Sixteen Saltines sounds like old White Stripes. Freedom at 21 has a blistering guitar solo at about the same tone as a dentist's drill. Hypocritical Kiss is a good cool out song with some piano. Unfortunately, the last several songs do not match the intensity or musically craftsmanship of the first 60% of the album. Itunes has a cool little counter on the side of the playlists that tell you how many times you have listened to a song. I just checked and I have listened to the last 5 songs about a third as many times as I have listened to the first 6. For that reason, I can only give Blunderbuss 3 ½ stars. It will be in the Album of the Year countdown, but it won’t be at the top.

Regardless, both of these albums should be in your collection and many of the songs in heavy rotation.

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