It was quite some time ago when I first encountered the music that The Black Keys played. At that time – I was a lot into Blues music due to me playing the Blues guitar and – on the other hand – I was deeply into Punk Rock. Then – I was introduced to The Black Keys when a friend of mine showed me “Goodbye Babylon” off Magic Potion – and I absolutely fell in love. Immediately afterwards, I started listening into every album released so far (this was about when Brothers came out) and began buying vinyl like a madman. However – even afterwards – Magic Potion remained the absolute best of the entire discography in my opinion – shortly followed by The Big Come Up. I can still remember telling everyone that The Keys put their amps into sinks and recorded the album in that constellation in order to gain that raw sound. After Brothers, I did not get acquainted with El Camino when it came out, though, because it felt as if the raw edge was cut off and compensated with a lot of poppy, catchy hooks (which is not a bad thing itself – I just could not connect to it). Then, their most critically acclaimed album Turn Blue came out in 2014 and I initially did not feel any connection to this album either – because the raw edge was still off (although the raw edge was off since Attack & Release already – I know). However – after having repeatedly listened to “Weight of Love” for a long time – I opened up for Turn Blue and this is also something I have to emphasize at this point. This album has received a lot of bad ratings but after some time I got accustomed to The Black Keys playing a different sound and I have to admit that – in my opinion – this is definitely not their worst album. However – of course – this differs a lot from how we got to know The Keys.
At the end of last year – eventually – word spread that there will be a new release and I grew interested in the question whether The Black Keys would continue with the psychedelic sound they presented on Turn Blue or if the sound would change yet again picking features of beloved genres or bands. The most important alteration concerning their then upcoming release Let’s Rock was the fact that they parted ways with producer Danger Mouse, who was involved in the production of Black Keys albums since Attack & Release. This could mean a lot – either the fuzzy raw edge could come back or The Keys could lose grip entirely. Apart from any possibility, though, it meant that we could expect change and that made me interested in the album. These high expectations, however, lead to the fact that the first single release “Lo / Hi” left me a little bit disappointed – because obviously I was hoping for a step back and what I heard on this track felt as poppy as before but without the feeling of a Danger Mouse production. Nevertheless – The Keys showed that they were still able to play stripped-down music, which left hope that the entire album might grasp a sound that combinated fresh production and minimal sound.
The first and foremost aspect Let’s Rock displays is the reduction of additional instruments as can be heard on all the releases produced together with Danger Mouse. The opening track “Shine a Little Light” does not even need 20 seconds to perfectly showcase that The Black Keys are back again focusing on minimal instrumentation – memorable guitar riffs and a decent 70s sound combined with the incredible voice of Dan Auerbach. This first track also is a perfect opener for the entire album, because it encompasses several of the features many listeners most probably brought along as specific expectations concerning the rumors that were going on before the release. Apart from that – this first track and the ones that follow the opening of the album show that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney sticked to their promise to focus more on their original instruments instead of adding instruments on top at every corner. There is an absolute focus on the guitar on this album that – either blatantly or subtely – celebrates the sound of the six stringer.
On other tracks as well it can be heard that Dan Auerbach put a lot of emphasis on his guitar. For example, the riffs that are going on on “Lo / Hi” already show that the sound of a classy Bluesrock rhythm guitar can construct a decent verse without a lot of more instruments attached – and the riff in the chorus is absolutely refreshing. However, it is not only the guitar that gets a certain focus on this album, Patrick Carney can also shine quite dominantly when constructing stomping rhythms on tracks such as “Eagle Birds” that feel absolutely danceable together with Dan‘s guitar. Apart from that, the track “Tell Me Lies” opens up with a classy and grooving subtle and simple guitar riff going along the entire track, accompanied by Dan’s incredible voice singing about a (wo)man (most probably his ex-wife) continuously telling him lies throughout a relationship.
This also connects to the lyrical themes that are going on on this album – there is a strong connection between predominantly finding love in a new relationship, whereas ending a relationship also plays a key role in some tracks. Hence, the focus on broken hearts that was absolutely present on Let’s Rock‘s predecessor slightly changed and dealt with a more optimistic perspective. The track “Walk Across The River” for example most obviously deals with the glance through rose-colored glasses after having found love. Additionally, the fuzzy psychedelic sound that was hearable on Turn Blue became a mere additional effect that can be heard during short sequences of only some songs on the album. The Keys stepped back from their deep dive into the world of fx-laden psychedelic Pink Floyd sound and regained their connection to rawer Blues Rock sound. Once having got acquainted with the sound of Turn Blue – it needs a few moments to find back into the connection to older albums – but eventually lets you fall in love.
Then again, though, especially this aspect also adds up to the fact that the album did not turn out to be as positive as expected. Since the album is supposed to tightly connect to Magic Potion (as mentioned above – my favorite album), there is a certain energy the listener waits for on Let’s Rock. The raw energetic Blues sound that could be heard on Magic Potion, though, is not present on Let’s Rock. Although the riffs are quite catchy in detail, the entire songs at some points feel a little bit exchangeable. After having listened to some of the tracks – the listener might experience that a lot of tracks went through without actually having noticed. The energy that played a key role on the first albums of The Keys does not feel present on Let’s Rock.
On the one hand, this can be heard when listening closer to Dan Auerbach‘s vocals, which at some point feel quite stiff and do not leave the most comfortable range of highs and lows. Remembering the finesse of the vocals on Brothers, it becomes quite evident that the calmer and less dynamic voice on this album leads to the fact of blending the sound of several tracks on the album. The production on this album also gets in line with the same impact as mentioned above. It is no secret that Magic Potion and Rubber Factory owed their unique sound to their raw and wild production, but the mixing of the instruments on Let’s Rock connects to the vocals we can hear from Dan throughout the album – it is absolutely neat, polished and on point. Basically, being on point is a positive factor for music, but the syncopation on Magic Potion was one of the key facors that constructed the energy. On Let’s Rock, though, the rhythm is absolutely in time – which feels weird when listening to The Black Keys (if you are not listening to Turn Blue).
Eventually, Let’s Rock is no bad album at all – there are a lot of tracks that are absolutely enjoyable and a lot of the riffs that can be heard on the album will spark joy in the hearts of older Black Keys fans. The prevalent albums that made use of the sound Let’s Rock wants to reestablish, though, display that The Black Keys are able to play wilder with regards to a lot of aspects in their music. On the one hand, the stiff production lets this album feel a bit like a safe hit after quite some time of not playing music together. On the other hand, though, it is absolutely great to see Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney reach back at their more minimal music they played before getting in touch with Danger Mouse – and I think this is can be a perfect transition into reestablishing the rawness of the minimal Blues Rock albums The Black Keys started with and we fell in love with.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
7 / 10
As usual, we added the favorite track(s) to our Transcended Review Playlist.