Monday, January 14, 2008

The Black Keys - The Chulahoma EP

(in which, I-VII, gabbagabbahey attempts to write about the blues

taking in, variously, such diverse yet connected subjects as Dinosaur Jr., The Black Keys, Thickfreakness, Mclusky, Jawbreaker, Jack Kerouac, and, of course, Junior Kimbrough

but most of all, or at least in the end, letting the music and the words speak for themselves)

I: the paint-spattered mumblecore blues

Over the course of blogging last year, I've been trying to describe how good the new Dinosaur Jr. album, Beyond, sounds (here, here and here). On top of all those ramblings, was the idea that the feeling of the album harked back to something much earlier, much more primal. Note, please, that I'm not referring to a) the style of playing, or the musical arrangement or whatever - but the feeling that the album emotes, and b) I'm not referring to the blues as necessarily 'primal', but rather - as this record testifies - something very much alive and modern.

That said, Dinosaur Jr. provided me with a large part of my 2007 fix of 'discordant suburban whiteboy blues' (above and to the right). Or, as Scott from says:

"I'm not gonna front: I didn't listen to Dinosaur Jr. before this year, so I don't know how this record stacks up with their back catalog. What I do know is that this record is one long guitar solo that makes me want to chant "USA! USA!" along with it the entire time. When politicians talk about the terrorists taking away our freedoms, they're referring to J Mascis' right to wail."

(staff year-end list, #17)

(Or, yet again, landanimal's description of 'Pick Me Up': "the sweetest non-metal metal riff" of the year)

While I was a latecomer to the band too, that's not what's important. Beyond also gave me my annual shot of guitar-driven Americana - in a way that Dan Deacon, utterly fantastic though he is, hardly did; I haven't heard Magic yet, and although I just downloaded the Eddie Vedder soundtrack to Into the Wild, it's probably a bit too left-field. Point is, Dino Jr. was for me the greatest American cultural import of 2007.

That, in itself, would not be enough - for me, anyway - to build any sort of comparison to the blues would it not be for the totally random fact that stateside release of Beyond was through Fat Possum Records (though not in Europe, which is why I only found out about this now). Fat Possum, a Mississippi-based blues label, was for a period of eight years associated with Epitaph Records, thus providing a small but crucial link in my listening habits between punk and 'other' types of music.

II: the better than the white stripes blues

The first time I ever heard the Black Keys was on the Punk-O-Rama 8 compilation from 2003, with the song 'Thickfreakness'. The sheer sound of the guitar on that track blew me away; elsewhere I have written about hearing Mclusky's seminal album Mclusky Do Dallas:

" made noise cool for me"

and I guess hearing Thickfreakness (the song, first, and then not too long afterwards, the identically titled album) performed a similar function. However, in this case it wasn't about the chaotic and collective power of a punk band, but the singularly raucous, groovy and earth-shattering sound that was coming out of that man's one guitar.

For quite a while Thickfreakness was my favourite musical purchase, with its softpack case, clean white design (and seriously unhealthy-looking cover art) and self-proclaimed "patented" "medium fidelity" recording technique. It was probably the CD that spent the longest time out on loan to a friend - I don't know if he'll be reading this, but he should know who he is. And apart from that, I have a strong memory of listening to this album while taking long train journeys across the country, to the west of Ireland.

The sounds of this album were strangely lulling, exciting and profoundly moving; it had soul. Its pounding rhythms, incessant drumming and soaring, sonically anguished guitar riffs melded together in a driving, hard-rocking bluesy whole. The fuzzed, half-broken and utterly plaintive vocals were only the addition to an immense, living sound which made the heart beat with an extra vitality. From the more authentically bluesy (and Junior Kimbrough original) of 'Hard Row' to the quiet balladsy closer 'I Cry Alone' and via the beat-rockers of 'Have Love Will Travel' or the searing opener, 'Thickfreakness', Thickfreakness quickly became, and still remains, one of the most perfect albums I have had the pleasure to listen to.

III. the cop-killing, kerouac-reading blues

It is not, however, about that album that this post is about. Thickfreakness, and the Black Keys of 'that period', were my introduction to the blues (and truthfully, I haven't ventured very far since). From this realization there was also the more predictable realization that, as a truism, all rock music, punk included, derives from the blues guitar players of the lesser decades of the 20th century. Punk necessarily, but also somewhat paradoxically so, because it sets itself up in opposition to some of the most heavily blues-influenced, and also most bloatedly awful, segments of rock music; and unfortunately those segments are also closely linked to some of the most popular, and critically and devotionally acclaimed parts of rock:

"Someone was blasting Zeppelin. It sounded good.

I felt ashamed. I knew every drum fill."

(Jawbreaker, 'Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault)

I’m aware that Zeppelin-bashing may be controversial to many and heretical to some, and that even as an obvious Ramones fan I don’t advocate a return to three-chord rock; but goddamnit, it ain’t punk! Led Zeppelin serve only as a reminder of how not to play the blues and by extension, how not to play rock music.

The hypocrisy Jawbreaker point out is absolutely true – Led Zeppelin does sound good, and if I didn’t know who it was, and at least until I noticed that the song was going on way longer than it should do, I might quite enjoy it - and I wish it wasn’t, because what Led Zeppelin and every other traditional rock band since the 1960s has been doing is not worship of the blues, but the raping of the blues (by phallically obsessed white guitar heroes, nonetheless - whaddya know?)

IV. the lightsaber cocksucking blues

"That white-hot sonic anarchy, the complete abandon of scatological lyrics and eye-popping vocals, it took me out of any disillusionment I may have been having about the ability of punk rock to physically and musically move me. Naturally - and I assume this is the same for most people - my tastes have hardened over time, grown less delicate - but for me Mclusky was a quantum leap, a paradigm shift (perhaps, a la Dilbert, one without a clutch)."

(HFN: Mclusky Singles)

. the spontaneous bop prosodic blues

“NOTE: I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday. I take 242 choruses; my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway into the next.”

“In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing and harmonized with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses.

It’s all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot.”

(Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues/Book of Blues)

V. the meetinghouse city square blues.

The two albums by the Black Keys that succeeded Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory and Magic Potion don’t match up to the pure sonic physicality and prosody of that perfect album. Physicality, because their sound has somehow ‘softened’, overall less raw if not incapable of rocking out at certain points; and prosody, because the blues in general and the blues of Thickfreakness in particular were about telling a story, in sound as well as in words.

The later two albums lost a lot of the sonic heat of Thickfreakness, which was really as much a punk record as it was a rock one; and the songs risked slipping into cliché, as well as drifting towards a poppier, lighter sound. In short, the Black Keys, the only blues-rock band that made sense, were reverting to type, and turning back into Led Zeppelin.

Sometime around the release of Magic Potion - February, last year - the Black Keys played a gig in Dublin, in the Temple Bar Music Centre. The crowd was one of the older groups in the gigs I saw last year (older than Slint, heyday 1989-1991) and the blues-rock sound was the reason why. In their own words:

“I think it's a really good mix,” Auerbach says of the duo’s fanbase, “and we're really happy with that. We get the older dudes who are into Cream and Hendrix, and the hipsters...I love our audience”

(Chicago Inner View)

The band played a selection of blues/rock covers, which sounded good, but left me cold, and left me bored. Where was the anarchy, where was the emotion?

Their new stuff didn’t do much for me either, and it was only when they started on their Thickfreakness/Big Come Up (and admittedly, a few of the noisier songs from Rubber Factory) material that I really felt why the Black Keys were such a good band. ‘Thickfreakness’, ‘Set Me Free’, and ‘The Breaks’ (featured on my anti-mixtape of good, good noise, Melt Yr Ears) got things going, but my favourite song of the night was the one track they played from Chulahoma, Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me in the City’.

VI. the electric juke-joint guitar-playing blues

"There was a black and white photo on the front cover. It was of an old man seated by a jukebox. He was playing an electric guitar while some women, frozen in time, swayed to the music he seemed to be making. I was away at college, in that little Ohio town. There, alone in my room, I was transformed. It was by this man and the music on that CD. I've heard people say this before, that they were forever changed by so and so, by this or that, but I have to tell you truthfully, fuck all that. Nature, humanity, my feet on the floor, the fake wood laminated desktop, the moon and the stars, the heat from my body, my reflection in the mirror, my whole existence wa flipped on its head and back around twice. I was in a trance for days and didn't even know it. Very suddenly, I was skipping class to play guitar. Shortly thereafter, I'd be dropping out of college altogether. Setting out to find my own way. The bar had been set impossibly high and there was nothing more those professors could help me with. I'd found a new teacher."

- dan auerbach

VII. the mind-ramblin’ psychedelic revolver blues

The Black Keys - Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough

1. Keep Your Hands Off Her

2. Have Mercy On Me

3. Work Me

4. Meet Me In The City

5. Nobody But Me

6. My Mind Is Ramblin’

Junior Kimbrough and the Soul Blues Boys – All Night Long

1. Work Me Baby

2. Do the Rump

3. Stay All Night

4. Meet Me In The City

5. You Better Run

6. Done Got Old

7. All Night Long

8. I Feel All Right

9. Nobody But You

10. Slow Lightning

Buy these records from Fat Possum Records or via eMusic.


mr x, indeed said...

cheers i've been really interested to hear the originals since i heard chulahoma.
'preach bruv

blend77 said...

hey man, i really liked the Chulahoma EP!!! great stuff!

thanks so much! ive been craving more tunefulness lately...

john doe said...

you have a surprisingly well-written blog, I can tell that you put time, thought, and care into it.
A pleasue to read, even if I do disagree with you about Led Zeppelin. Surely if you do not condemn all white boy blues you cant single out Zep on that account and condemn them for "raping" the blues.

gabbagabbahey said...

john doe - heh, the problems of being facetious! I don't condemn all white boy blues (to say white people can't play the blues is, frankly, racist) but I just don't like that part of it represented (as the best known, most successful, influential, etc...) by Led Zeppelin.
but thanks for the compliment, I really enjoyed writing this piece.

mr x, i/blend - good to hear people digging the sounds of Junior Kimbrough/Junior Kimbrough as represented by the Black Keys. A little slice of my listening habits that I keep coming back to...

also, the phrase "raping" the blues, wasn't my own invention, I heard it somewhere before. It's a bit crass, admittedly.

blend77 said...

crass is good. we need crass comments and behavior at times. otherwise things get too static and no one is challenged.

though i have to side with john dough on this one. I freaking love Led Zeppelin. I always have, and i always will. My mom bought me Led Zep IV when i was in elementary school, cuz she knew i liked music alot and she thought i would like it.

Led Zeppelin is one of the main reasons i became such a music lover. Now, how i got from Zep to Slayer to Fugazi to Swing Kids.... I'll never know, but then again i never looked back.

gabbagabbahey said...

that's heartwarming, blend!
I won't deny anyway the pleasure of listening to Zep, if that's what they find in it.

for me, it's just a (reverse-snobbish?) prejudice. It was a kind of baiting section of the post, anyway. I'm pretty sure mr. x likes Zep too, waiting for him to weigh in and berate me...

all I'll say is, when it comes to Led Zep, "I Don't Wanna Hear It"
how's that for a punx reply?

anyway, this wasn't what this post is about... It's entirely possible to enjoy the Black Keys - or at least, Thickfreakness and Chulahoma in particular - without worrying about whether you like Led Zeppelin or not.