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The Black Keys’ El Camino: a Duo Delivering a BIG sound

6 Feb

The best album of 2011 arrived late in the year. Released on December 6, El Camino, the 7th studio album from the Black Keys, is a dazzling study on 60s blues riffs, classic R&B grooves, and the brutish psychedelic Brit-rock of the early 70’s.  Like previous Keys records, El Camino is not subtle.  It rumbles, it jangles, it screams.  The powerful drumming of Patrick Carney, mixed with the driving rhythms and haunting vocals of Dan Auerbach scream out of the speakers at mach-20.  However, in contrast to their previous raw, lo-fi attempts, this record uses the studio as an instrument to enhance the song arrangements, and producer/collaborator Danger Mouse plays that instrument masterfully. New voicings and textures enhance the solid, hooky melodies in ways we hadn’t heard before on a Black Keys record. Instead, we had grown accustomed to big beats and crunchy hooks from the Akron, Ohio duo.

On previous records like Brothers and Attack and Release, the Keys took their cues from their mentors.  If you close your eyes and listen to Attack and Release you would swear you were listening to a young, pre-slow hand, Clapton, patiently pounding out classic blues riffs from his flat in London. However, El Camino uses those influences and polishes them with production to reveal that the strength of this record is not in the masterful playing of the musicians involved, but in the songwriting and in the arranging.  In short…El Camino is a really f*cking good batch of songs.

Recording a beast of a record.

Recording for the album began in early March 2011, with the Keys once again tapping the fabulous Danger Mouse to collaborate, who also produced and co-wrote every song on the album.  In those early days of March, the band began the planning and production completely from scratch. Easy Eye Sound Studio, owned by Auerbach and the band’s personal rehearsal space, had been newly built in an old industrial section of Nashville, Tennessee and outfitted with vintage recording gear purchased from some of the more famous recording meccas of the south. Meccas like Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, home of classic recordings by Aretha, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, to name a few.

So the Black Keys holed up at Easy Eye for 41 days with Danger Mouse and his engineer Kennie Takahashi.  The studio’s unique characteristics, like the bathrooms and stairwells, were used to record vocals, hand claps and guitar parts. The result is an authentic sounding collage of sounds, tones and textures. All of which contribute to the warm vibe of El Camino.

The album was mixed by the legendary Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam) who received songs via mail in batches of two and three at a time as Auerbach and Carney continued to work and hone the arrangements in Nashville. Blake described the songs as “basically done” when he received them, saying on The Black Keys Fan Lounge, “(El Camino) came to me much closer to what they wanted the finished record to be so it was more of a balance job.” His task was to organize the tracks, hone the edits, as well as adjust the effects and general sonics of the instruments. The result is great sounding record, and Blake’s mixes sound organic and consistent from track to track.  Even when he’s switching from quiet pieces like “Little Black Submarines” into loud raucous songs like “Money Maker,” that organic consistency is there.

A really f*cking good batch of songs.

El Camino opens with “Lonely Boy,” the album’s first single. It’s a brash and effective break-up song that kicks off the record like a 40-yard field goal. The song begins in typical Black Keys fashion – a single guitar and a biting riff. As you listen to “Lonely Boy” progressively build to a frenzy, everything seems to fall away as Aurbach’s haunting vocal begin.  The lyrics are clever, and if you didn’t know better, you might just think that you’re listening to the meta-slick grooves of T.Rex (think “Bang a Gong”).  “Lonely Boy” offers a perfect counterpoint to the previous work by the Black Keys.  El Camino foregoes the live, stripped down style that was their sixth studio effort, Brothers, for the wall of sounds and layering of multiple vocals and guitar parts in order to create a lush sound-scape for your aural pleasure.  It’s intense.

The next notable accomplishment on this record is “Gold on the Ceiling.”  This is quite a masterful piece of production. An unassuming riff begins in a familiar way. A 12-bar blues that begins to build.  As the clavinet organ pops in and the hand claps take hold, the “pocket” of this song begins to form.  This is the place where the collective groove of everything that’s happening has come together so perfectly to form a warm, delightful pocket, where you could lay for hours in a blissful dream-like state.

And “Gold on the Ceiling” has some deep pockets.  Once again, everything melts into the background to give way to one of the more soulful vocal performances on the album. The production and arrangements on this song are nearly perfect, made evident by the fact that you don’t notice what’s happening until it’s happening.

The last song to note is “Money Maker.”  This song’s lyrics and guitar work are adequate, but the drumming of Patrick Carney steals the show here. Switching from tight, funky verses to all out rocking on the choruses, Carney shows why he’s one of the best in the business, going from complete control to reckless abandon and back again without batting an eyelash.  He drives this song and delivers it from ho-hum to holy shit. “Money Maker” is a song that might be forgettable if done by any other band, but here: the drummer has some.

To wrap up this wordy blow job, let me just say that El Camino is a heck of a record that you just need to run out and get, download, and experience. I could felate every song on this record, but I’ll save the money shot for your Saturday night headphone experience.

Enjoy!

Carl Sexton

For more info, check out The Black Keys official site: http://www.theblackkeys.com/

Foo Fighters Rock Philadelphia

11 Nov

On the eve of what is being dubbed Nigel Tufnel Day (11.11.11), the Foo Fighters appropriately took things way past 11 when they played the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia last night.

From the moment the opening guitar riff of “Bridges Burning” cut through the packed Wells Fargo Center, it was on. They ripped though a blistering set of hit after hit after hit after…hit, highlighting the fact that Dave Grohl is a monster frontman.

At first, it seemed like the Dave and Taylor (Hawkins) show. The pair is defining Bromance…and I like it. Hawkins even sang lead on two songs – “Cold Day in the Sun” from In Your Honor and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh.”

The rest of  the band – Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett and keyboardist Rami Jaffee – looked a little tired and road weary until Grohl intro’d the band and everyone seemed to come alive, gracious that so many people came out to see them on a school night. And then Grohl ran out to another tiny stage toward the back of the house.  Shiflett stood on the main stage, and the two had a little dueling guitars battle, which provided a bit of levity and a chance for Shiflett to show off the mad skills that got him the title of lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters.

After the show, WMMR’s Pierre Robert reported that the Foo’s Philly audience was the largest audience on the tour, and I believe it. In fact, I’m surprised I can hear at all today. The Foos played eight songs off the new album, Wasting Light and closed the first set with the anthemic “All My Life.”

Then Grohl appeared in extreme close-up, bathed in a greenish, night vision camera-y light, projected on screens peppered throughout the stage. He put a hand to one ear and the crowd exploded. He held up one finger, and the crowd cheered. Shiflett appeared on camera and held up two fingers, and the crowd really cheered. Teasing the audience, Grohl shook his head no. The crowd booed until he held up two fingers and then three. This continued with Smear and Hawkins joining in until the hand count got up to six more songs.

“The whole show you thought you had the shitty seats,” Grohl told those sitting in the back and in the nosebleeds beyond, “Well not anymore.” He performed three of the five encore songs solo, acoustic and on the elevated stage toward the back of the floor. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was on their feet. Grohl even played a taste of “Blackbird” by his beloved Beatles but cheekily made mention of his lack of classical training and said that you should never play songs from a band that’s better than your band, “That’s why you only play one verse.”

Once back on the main stage to finish out “Times Like These” plugged in and with the rest of the band, they were then joined by Bob Mould of Husker Du fame for “Dear Rosemary” which he also appears on on the album, as well as a seemingly impromptu cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown.” The Foos closed the show, of course, with “Everlong,” one of the best songs ever, in my opinion, and the audience appeared to agree – bouncing, singing, clapping and dancing, totally uncaring that they’d already been on their feet doing much of the same for the last three hours.

Taylor Hawkins introduced Grohl as one of the best musicians of our generation, and he wasn’t the first person I heard say that last night – or in general lately. That’s a moniker I don’t think should be tossed around lightly, and after delivering a set of such magnitude, in which Grohl ran around, totally engaged the audience, shredded on the guitar and sang his balls off, I have to agree. The Foo Fighters are well aware that they’re where they are and doing what they love because of their fans. Dave Grohl and Co. paid their Philadelphia fans last night in full.

A complete setlist can be found here.

Popped! Music Festival Rocked North Philadelphia

28 Sep

Popped! Music Festival got off to a rocky start, before the first peal of reverb ripped through the air. Due to a flood inducing, very rainy forecast, festival organizers made the decision to move the event indoors to the Liacouras Center on Temple University’s Main Campus. That meant no more Food Bazaar and one stage instead of three. And all this rapid fire change took place in what seemed to be an impressive 24-hour time span. The result could’ve been chaotic and disorganized, but such was not the case. It was as if the Liacouras Center had been part of the plan all along.

Dead Confederate opened the festival late Friday afternoon, opting to play Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night front to back. Well, that was the intention until the festival was relocated indoors and their set time was whittled down to 30 minutes. The concept was cool, but I would have liked to hear some original tunes out of them. The band is a septet from Georgia, and although you can hear the southern in their style, they don’t seem too heavily rooted in it. They have a chill, haunting vibe that is very nouveau-grunge. And dare I say I hear hints of Kurt Cobain in the lead singer, Hardy Morris’ voice…?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. were the total package. Neon checkered jackets? Check. Lots and lots of bubbles? Check and check. The bubbles bumped the duo’s feel good vibe up to 11, and their rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” only added to the endearing little bromance they seem to have going.

Company of Thieves may be in their mid-twenties, but they rocked it as good as, if not better than, some of their veteran rock & roll counterparts. Singer Genevieve Schatz packs quite an energy injected wallop for such a tiny person, and I think it’s safe to say that all in attendances’ collective jaw hit the floor that such a tiny person could fill up a stage so much. Everyone was buzzing about their set and were especially buzzing about Schatz as a lead singer, who channelled the likes of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, and even a little Scott Weiland when she whipped out a megaphone. Schatz is a bonafide powerhouse and she’s joined by a band who rises up to meet her. These guys are the ones to watch, and if you don’t know about Company of Thieves yet, you should.

The Joy Formidable would have been a great follow for the rockin’ energy Schatz & Co. created but alas, they opted out of their performance. Speculation was swirling as to the reason and there were murmurings that it was due to lack of getting a soundcheck but a formal reason was never given. The band did issue the following veiled apology on their Facebook page:

“Oh Popped Festival… we tried so so hard, but circumstances beyond our control forced us to abandon today’s set. We’re gutted, we were so looking forward to playing Philly again. Rest assured, we’re back soon & we’ll make this up to you. This isn’t something we take lightly. Details soon. All our love, RRMx”

Synthesizers, synthesizers, synthesizers. That was the theme of Day #2 at Popped!

Hometown boys Sun Airway were the first band that I saw on Day #2 to debut the 80s music staple, but their sound was firmly rooted in The Bends-era Radiohead. But where Thom Yorke constantly sounds like someone killed his cat, Sun Airway’s sound is mellow and ethereal, but there’s still a sense of hope in the melancholic, sense of longing the tone of their songs takes on. They were very The National meets whatever would come between Joy Division and New Order. Sadly, however, the crowd was still pretty thin by the time of their late afternoon performance on Saturday, as many shuffled in for the early evening performances of Foster the People, Girl Talk and Pretty Lights, the first of which were the highlight of the festival.

By the time Foster the People took the stage, the crowd was ready for them. Kreayshawn, who was performed just prior was a droning, grating, annoying miss, but Foster the People was a major hit. Singer Mark Foster knew how to win over his audience the second he set foot onstage, showing some Philly pride by wearing a snappy, red Phillies vest.

The band had the stage presence and energy that reminded me of Coldplay and a musical style that is refreshingly all their own. Foster’s voice has a pitch this side of Adam Levine’s, and given the love/hate reception Levine seems to be met with, I am on the love side of the line meaning Foster’s following in his footsteps is an absolute good thing. Levine and his moves like Jagger are sex on two feet, even with that falsetto, and something tells me Foster isn’t that far behind.

And he’s already got some groupies, that’s one thing for sure. “Someone lost a bra…who is the owner of this bra?” Foster drawled after someone hurled a black brassiere his way. “I’m keeping it,” he said and hooked it onto his mic stand. This is definitely a band worthy of their buzz. They’re phenomenal – and that’s not a word I throw around, especially when it comes to my music. They blistered through rocker after rocker, barely coming up for air, and by the time they launched into a rock/techno hybrid remix of “Pumped Up Kicks,” the entire arena was going nuts. Foster the People proves there’s hope for music yet.

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