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The Gray Area: A review of “Lo/Hi”


By Henry Gray

Almost 20 years after they recorded their first album in drummer Patrick Carney’s basement, The Black Keys have released their most recent album, “Lo/Hi.” This release comes after their most commercially successful and least interesting album Turn Blue in the summer of 2014. Largely devoid of their defining blues rock and lo-fi style, True Blue charted as a number one hit in the US but left the band’s longtime fans wondering to where the toothy and dirty Keys had disappeared.

Guitarist and lyricist Dan Auerbach left us clues. “Gotta Get Away,” the final and most enjoyable track from Turn Blue, at first seemed to be a simple summertime jam that harped on the search for the perfect romantic partner. In fact, the message was even more clear; it was Carney and Auerbach themselves that needed to get away.

After releasing eight full albums, their popularity and renown grew steadily. Their musical style developed significantly, which saw them gravitate from a dingy garage and blues rock sound to a produced, clean cut brand of rock. Carney and Auerbach were no longer quiet teens from Ohio making music in their basements. They were international rock superstars selling out stadiums and featuring their music on the commercials for History’s “Swamp People” TV show. Every single album they released charted higher than the previous one, with “Brothers,” “El Camino” and “Turn Blue” charting at 3, 2, and 1, respectively in the US.

And so, each member of the duo took their time to regroup. Auerbach released two solo albums and formed The Arcs as a new side project, while Carney focused on producing and other interests (including creating the theme for Netflix’s Bojack Horseman). Without warning, The Black Keys released a new track entitled “Lo/Hi” — their first release in five years.

“Lo/Hi” is in many ways a return to form. The track bounces simple lyrics off a resonant and thick guitar. On the drums, Carney rocks an unpretentious beat that highlights the crashing symbols against Auerbach’s guitar. The centerpiece of the song, though, comes exactly at the two-minute mark, with Auerbach’s 15-second solo.

It is these 15 seconds. We waited five years while the band took their time to rediscover what made them popular in the first place: pure, unrelenting blues rock that makes you want tap your foot a bit quicker or pounce on the accelerator, cruising down I-80 on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

Although the track would be most at home on the El Camino album, this new release begs listeners to return to the earlier albums where their DNA was developing. And so, I plated up the The Black Keys’ second album Thickfreakness, which disappoints neither in its name nor stripped-down rock elegance.

Recorded in a continuous 14-hour session in Carney’s basement, Thickfreakness sounds like a dusty vinyl record that serves up all you need to survive in this world: a two-piece rock band that knows how to crank it and how to temper it. (“It”, of course, being the band’s ability to melt your face off.)

The title and opening track, “Thickfreakness,” delivers this message from its first seconds. Auerbach rips a single note that distorts to a higher pitch until Carney absolutely lets the hammer down on the bass drum. The song comes back down to earth with a clean and repeatable rhythm so Auerbach can deliver two short verses and no chorus. This song has no verbal hook, just a distorted guitar to give us a structure to hang on to.

On the third song, “Set You Free,” Carney and Auerbach essentially trade places. Carney opens up with a drum roll that welcomes Auerbach’s guitar to slam down. Musically, the song is quite similar to “Thickfreakness,” but here the duo introduces more a clear lyrical meaning to the song. Like most blues music, “Set You Free” is about love and heartbreak. Auerbach tells the listener to “Let him go / Walk out your door / And come to me / I’m going to set you free.” With its contributing quick beat and pace, these lyrics are encouraging; they remind a listener that heartbreak can be akin to a prison cell to which a new partner might have they Keys.

After a long silence, the emergence of The Black Keys “Lo/Hi” shows listeners they can once again look forward loud and proud blues rock from Carney and Auerbach. It won’t be the classic basement sound from Thickfreakness but it will nonetheless pack the energy and grit that makes that album special and listenable at all times.

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