Black and White Blues: A Black Keys and White Stripes Retrospective

As with any year, there’s a run of (probably, ideally) great albums slated to be released this summer. This is the part of the year that I traditionally look forward to the most; after a middling release calendar in the early year and picking up in March, May and June blow by with tentpole albums coming out seemingly every week. To wit: this year, we’re getting new Black Keys and Jack White efforts within a month of each other. It’s actually the closest the two have come to dual releases in over a decade of implicit (and sometimes explicit) competition.

The Turn Blue/Lazaretto double-header can’t help but feel like those years of comparisons coming to a head, particularly since 2014 marks the first time that The Black Keys’ front man Dan Auerbach and Jack White are coming in on equal footing. White’s been regarded as  the highest level of rock ‘n roll pedigree for nearly a decade, while Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney only achieved their status as an institution in 2011. And, for once, I feel familiar with both groups; getting into The Black Keys was one of my unofficial New Year’s Resolutions this year, and I’m a longtime Stripes fan who got back into them after Stereogum’s recent Top 10 (“Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” was robbed!). Looking at the two, it’s hard to see how they didn’t rule the world together.

The Early Years
The Black Keys are a simple band with a simple story: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney grew up in Akron, Ohio as friends, became friends who liked similar music, and later became friends who played similar music. That simplicity shines through on debut The Big Come Upthickfreakness, and Rubber Factory, the group’s aggressively purist first three records. Those albums were recorded at extravagant locales, like Carney’s basement and a re-purposed rubber factory, and still sound delightfully shabby. The Keys identity on those albums is a bare-bones duo with low-fi production, rustic but bottom-heavy riffs, a loose sense of groove, and affected, crooning vocals. If they weren’t so rough (thickfreakness in particular), they could pass for dusty old blues albums. This version of The Black Keys ultimately culminated with Rubber Factory, which shines up the best parts of its predecessors. It sounds like a breakthrough record.

Years of comparisons have painted The Keys as the definitively rougher of the two, but to my ears, The White Stripes’ self-titled debut draws more blood than The Big Come UpThe White Stripes tempers its blues roots with garage rock simplicity and punky aggression; Jack’s riffs aren’t as tasteful, and Meg’s drumming is nowhere near as intricate, but there’s power in the album’s simplicity, like it’s trying to get away with being as minimal as possible. The Stripes established a broader sonic ballet on their debut, as well, with a folk undercurrent at it’s clearest on a mostly straight cover of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee”. Follow-up De Stijl peeled away a few layers of distortion, but pushed the band into genuine pop music, and further into folk and blues, giving them more variety.

The Breakthroughs
Both bands knew that Led Zeppelin once ruled the world, but it was Jack and Meg who realized they only did it once they made themselves into legends. Auerbach and Carney preferred to let the music speak for itself; even when they were The Biggest Band In The World, they still looked and acted like managers at Guitar Center (the cool ones who’d discount your stuff if you talked to them about Robert Johnson, but still). By comparison, The White Stripes came tumbling out of Detroit in a swirl of red, black, and white, complete with a bullshit sibling origin story and obsession with the number three. It’s the type of iconography that stuck out immediately, even without the merits of the music.

And White Blood Cells has plenty of merits. It has their first signature songs, like “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, “We’re Going to Be Friends”, and their breakout hit “Fell In Love With a Girl”, where abilities the band had previously only demonstrated over albums were condensed into two and three minute blasts. It’s their most decidedly garage rock album, too, and arrived right smack in the middle of the garage rock revival. Admittedly, it’s probably the fourth best White Stripes album, but it was the perfect record at the perfect time.

Their flatout best record and Jack White’s kingmaker remains its follow-up, Elephant. The Stripes’ music had always sounded arena-ready, but Elephant is their first album that could blow out stadium speakers. It marks the arrival of what’s become Jack White’s defining trait: those insane, shrieking, Whammy-pedal induced guitar solos. They snake their way through the album before culminating in “Ball and Biscuit”, a seven minute epic with three guitar solos that are probably responsible for 40% of any hearing loss I’ll ever acquire. White Blood Cells put The White Stripes on the map, but one-upping it with Elephant was what kept them out of the same used records bin that houses Highly Evolved.

Rubber Factory as The Black Keys breakout album would make sense, and, while it upped their presence more than their last few albums, it wasn’t a true crossover. For one thing, the external factors that boosted WBC had evaporated by 2004: blues/garage rock had given way to synth-laden post punk and jangley indie rock, and Elephant didn’t have to contend with Elephant in the way like Rubber Factory did. And, while RF might have what I still consider The Black Keys best song in “The Lengths”, it’s still very much an album in the early Keys anti-commercial stripe.

No, the Black Keys first big single came with an assist from Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. Danger Mouse is one of my favorite producers, and produced Auerbach and Carney’s album Attack and Release during his “collaborate with everybody” phase. For the Keys,he focused their groove and shaped the riffs into something resembling hooks, and in that regard, “Tighten Up” was flawless. “Tighten Up” isn’t from Attack and Release, it’s actually from it’s follow-up, Brothers, and was Danger Mouse’s only contribution to the album, but the rest of it has his fingerprints all over; Attack and Release‘s fuller/arty sound is still present, but incorporated far more naturally. It’s the album where The Black Keys discovered how to be comfortable sounding like themselves.

Late Period/Expansion
After Brothers and “Tighten Up”, The Keys wisely added Danger Mouse on as a cowriter/coproducer for El Camino. El Camino is the Elephant to Brothers‘ White Blood Cells: a sturdier, more accessible version of something that was already great. El Camino might be their best album–choosing between it and Rubber Factory comes down to mood more than anything else–but it’s the only big name Rock album in recent memory that can credibly soundtrack a party all by itself. The album gets written off by thickfreakness diehards as “pop music”, but El Camino is much less a band selling out than it is a veteran band honing their best skills. Try to hear “Gold on the Ceiling” as anything but a sharper version “10 A.M. Automatic”; it’s the same band, just without the lo-fi production or deliberate austerity.

Post-peak, The White Stripes put out two more albums: the meandering and experimental Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, which still sounds great as a single album retrospective. Get Behind Me Satan saw The Stripes run into an inevitable problem: their enforced “rock and roll duo” label was starting to chafe as they threw more piano, horns, and (of all things) marimba into their music. These problems worked themselves out by Icky Thump, which splits the difference three ways among early Stripes’ rawness, mid-career genre roulette, and late day power. As a solo artist, Jack White has followed The Black Keys example of fostering in sounds he used to only glance at; his debut Blunderbuss, tossed in more piano, folk, and R&B, and still managed to be as dramatic as some of his more constrained past. Blunderbuss wasn’t an instant classic, but it’s a sturdier album than an empty if kinda kickass song like “Sixteen Saltines” would suggest. It kept Jack on the map.

So, getting back to why these two groups didn’t dominate rock together, it all comes down to the fact that underneath all of the similarities, the two groups never operated on the same plane. Maybe they could have had a tangible rivalry if Elephant and Brothers were seven months apart, instead of seven years, but The Stripes were gigging major festivals while The Keys were eyeing regional indie labels with suspicion. It’s a shame because, while I’m sure Turn Blue and Lazaretto will be great albums with plenty of “Who wore it better?” comparisons, they’re both releases by well entrenched groups that don’t need competition between them to push each other forward. They might have both made it to the top, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to talk. Not that they did in the first place.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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