For a band so devoted to playing “real” rock ’n’ roll, the Black Keys’ success can be frustratingly peculiar for folks familiar with the stuff.
Sure, the duo benefited from being in the right niche at the right time: They hit college radio in 2002 with a lo-fi Hendrixization of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” just as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s owww-baybuh shtick warmed over with their own werewolf-themed “She Said.” Gradually dropping the bassy faux-blaccent over the decade and leaving the basement for studio recordings produced by Danger Mouse, the Black Keys were primed to be championed by two-piece alt-rock-blues enthusiasts who’d slowly realized the White Stripes were never coming back.
But why are the Black Keys so popular? Guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are capable riff-churners well-versed in the works of their elders, but is there anyone playing blues-rock this century who isn’t? They’ve never had a Top 40 crossover, or even released a single that would merit pop radio omnipresence. Alternative rock radio omnipresence they’ve managed, sure, but so has Cage the Elephant. Rarely as hooky as platinum usually requires, it’s not clear what these guys have going for them over similar but flashier acts like Eagles of Death Metal other than their earnest, cross-generational inoffensiveness. Is that enough?
With an electric chair on the cover and the titular mission statement, you might hope “Let’s Rock” is the album where the duo finally makes like the concert draw they are and unleashes their “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” They’re handling their own production for the first time in a decade, and the riffola comes out cleaner than it did on 2014’s busy Turn Blue, the singles “Eagle Birds” and “Lo/Hi” strutting as confidently and Auerbach soloing as showily as…Eagles Of Death Metal. (OK, I won’t bring them up again but seriously, if any band should be this generation’s Canned Heat….)
Oddly, both those push tracks reference birds flying high in the sky, drawing attention to the band’s lyric problem. If this is the first album you’ve ever heard where the singer asked you to shine a little light, tell him lies (pretty lies, no less), or get yourself together and “Go,” you might be interested to know that “every little thing you do will always come back to you” and that “it ain’t no fun when you’re under the gun.” The most impressive turn of phrase might be the bit about how you go low and high, rather than high and low. “Fire Walk With Me” is also pretty fresh for the Keys, coming from an early ‘90s film and all.
Carney’s brisk playing keeps the modest romantic ennui from getting too turgid, and Auerbach’s voice is thankfully more England Dan than Blind Willie. Still, “Let’s Roll” would have been a more appropriate title, if only that phrase didn’t suggest dubious wars and voting for the Patriot Act. “Let’s Rock” is surprisingly low on shock value for an album that, again, has a goddamn electric chair on the cover. If the Black Keys wanted to win over skeptics and explain what they really meant by “rocking,” they should have gone instead with a nice picture of a boat.