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Revisit:

The Black Keys

Thickfreakness

2003

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

I remember precisely where I was when I first heard the Black Keys’ Thickfreakness; it was in my favorite record store and the proprietor, knowing his clientele well, casually changed the CD from whatever he had on previously to this lean, tough, bluesy guitar rock. He didn’t announce it, he didn’t sell it. He simply made the switch and kept on chatting with me. When the time came to complete my already hefty purpose, I looked the store owner right in the eye and said, “And you better give me whatever you’ve got playing right now.”

On the surface, the sophomore album from the Black Keys sounded like a lot of other music that was being released and heavily hyped at the time with bands like the Hives, Jet and the Mooney Suzuki being heralded as garage rock revival. Even the White Stripes were lumped into this trend – albeit as the anointed standard bearers — a categorization that now seems feebly short-sighted now that the broader scope of Jack White’s talent and ambition has emerged. Similarly, there was a lot of down and dirty blues music to be freshly found on record store shelves. This was thanks in large part to the Fat Possum record label, co-founded and run by Matthew Johnson, who rescued battered old bluesmen the from impoverished obscurity.

In fact, Fat Possum was the very label that released Thickfreakness. Their tiny logo appeared on the back cover directly above the barcode, essentially dotting that i with a seal of approval from the company that settled for no less authenticity than Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford in filling out their roster. The duo from Akron, Ohio that comprised the Black Keys had a lot to live up to, just by virtue of the implicit promise of their label. Happily, they proved their mettle in the only way that mattered: by playing nasty, angry blues music like the walls were falling down and they were delivering their last will and testament using little more than an electric guitar, a set of drums and microphone.

Raw, honest and pure, this is the kind of music that the noted American blues disciples in the Rolling Stones might have spent their lives making if Mick Jagger didn’t love money so much. The songs on Thickfreakness lack any sort of apologetic polish, any sense that the band second-guessed them during the recording. From the moment the title track kicks off the album, the surging guitar already sounding fierce enough to leave the amp broken and buzzing, as if in pain, the Black Keys seem burrowed into the music. They’re not performing, they’re expressing something deep, intimate, bruised and exhausting. Dan Auerbach plays his guitar with a precision that builds into a beautifully murky wall of sound through some unknowable alchemy, moving around his riffs like a madman in a lightless cave. Meanwhile, Patrick Carney taps out a steady, pleading beat on the drums.

It’s an album free from showboating. Both men play with a reverence for their musical forefathers, but never become mired in mere tribute. They approach the well-worn sounds of the blues with an apparent sense of responsibility. They need to carry it forward, not just dwell in the past. This doesn’t call for reinvention. It does, however, mandate complete conviction to the songs. Even when they cover Kimbrough’s “Everywhere I Go,” the Black Keys play it with a haunted, wounded longing that conveys a deep connection with the material, a sense that it’s somehow their own instead of something they’ve borrowed from a legend.

The band constantly displays the keenest instincts for where the pain in the song lies, which, since this is the blues, is where the heart of the song lies. What’s more, they know how to dig their way towards it. Sometimes it calls for slipping in edgewise, such as on “Midnight in Her Eyes” with an opening guitar line that almost seems to creep up to the song as its sad laments (“You never thought about goin’ wrong / Now you wonder where your man is gone“) but there are those times the only opening that will suffice is a sharp drum roll keying a fevered riff. The latter is the case on “Set You Free,” which finds Auerbach pleading for a lover to come to him after abandoning her man. Auerbach plays and sings with an intensity that suggests an entire side of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs boiled down to under three minutes.

That level of intensity is the case throughout the record. At its most potent, the blues isn’t a music that’s played by the performers; it’s lived by them, note by note, up on the stage. Auerbach groans out the lyrics like any of the words could be the one that fells him for good. The music is agony and catharsis at the same time. “No Trust” opens with death rattle tones that could have accompanied Screamin’ Jay Hawkins popping up from his stage coffin. The song starts to chug with train car rhythm, almost seeming to bring the musicians along in pursuit. The song has a feel of compulsion about it; it’s played out of need rather than choice. Much of the album has this quality, demanding a requisite fullness and, in the spirit of the juke joints that long served as the museums for this style of music, volume.Whenever I listen to Thickfreakness, I imagine the band playing it in the middle of an enormous abandoned warehouse, as if that were the only place that could contain the bellow of the album.

The Black Keys kept on going after this album, trying to find ways to stretch themselves while still staying true to these sounds. Sometimes it’s worked (Brothers) and sometimes it hasn’t (Attack & Release), but they’ve never been complacent. The sub-scene that buoyed them at the time of Thickfreakness imploded sometime shortly after the album’s release, and many of the bands that the Keys were lumped together with are now just fuzzy memories, relegated to the peculiar obscurity of college radio one-hit wonders.

Even if the Black Keys had pulled their own vanishing act, I think this album would endure. As the recording industry hits the boosters on their rocket ride to insignificance by leaning on ever-phonier pop flotsam and crassly raiding back catalogs to squeeze dollars out of helpless collectors, albums like Thickfreakness stand out as increasingly rare representations of what music can be. It’s pure passion expressed through chords, beats and wails. The album’s fevered devotion to a form of music that reaches back at least to Robert Johnson’s devil dancing at the crossroads also serves as a reminder that bygone greatness can always be recaptured, reformed and revitalized. The best music doesn’t need to be only part of the distant past.

by Dan Seeger

See Also: Concert Review- The Black Keys/Nicole Atkins (2010)

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See Also: The Black Keys- Brothers

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