I’m gonna get this outta the way right quickly, with the help of enumeration. Two things:
1) Dan Auerbach is one of the finest guitar players in any band playing right now. Check out the Black Keys Live at the Crystal Ballroom DVD if you don’t believe me.
2) His solo debut, Keep It Hid is a beautiful album, where Auerbach expands on the old school blues sound he pushes in The Black Keys and tosses in some old school soul and some seriously Band-ish country rock. It’s good stuff and good for you, Dan Auerbach.
Seriously, Keep It Hid is a good album, it’s not just a Black Keys album by any other name. Somewhat paradoxically, this is what kinda pisses me off about Dan Auerbach and his pal Pat Carney, who are better known as the two guys in The Black Keys.
The Black Keys, despite producing one of their finest albums yet with Danger Mouse, continue as a two-piece, which may be why Auerbach kept their name off of his solo debut, which employs nifty things like a bass player and a keyboardist. But make no mistake, following last year’s Attack & Release with Keep It Hid only solidifies this point: The Black Keys need to give up the two-man show, hire some other musicians full-time and use Keep It Hid as their launchpad to bigger and better musical things.
The two-man show thing works pretty well for what it is (again, see them live or see a live video of theirs for evidence), but it only lends itself to the expression of so many musical ideas. Auerbach very clearly has more in him than that, as evidenced by the achingly beautiful Keep It Hid opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton.” It’s a harmony rich, acoustic ballad that hits you like a ton of bricks. And wouldn’t it be refreshing on a Black Keys album if they could just drop their usual shtick (good as it usually is) and go for that kind of vibe? There were places on their last album where they hinted at this capability, but why limit that exploration to the studio? Carney and Auerbach are clearly talented musicians, so why cage up all those great ideas?
There are songs on Keep It Hid that sound like Black Keys songs (“I Want Some More”, “The Prowl,” and the title track come to mind), but what they’re missing is Carney’s stellar drumming. The songs are still pretty good, but you think, “Wow, these could use some of that crashing Pat Carney drumming.” But then you come to songs like “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” “Real Desire,” and “When the Night Comes,” and you realize that if you added Pat Carney to Keep It Hid, you’d have everything you love about The Black Keys plus that ever-sought-after So Much More. Auerbach’s solo debut is a good album, but if you added to it everything that made Attack & Release so strong, you’d have a truly great record. And it woudn’t be that hard to do. Auerbach would merely have to keep everyone who played on his solo album except for the drummer, who would be replaced with Auerbach’s fellow Black Key.
Perhaps there’s a feeling between Auerbach and Carney that their fans love the Black Keys for their lo-tech,two-man sound, but I’m willing to bet that their fans would be willing to forgive them for foisting an album upon us that had the strong melodies of Keep It Hid and all the pure balls of, say, Thickfreakness. Sure, it’d be a change, but some change is just too awesome to pass up. And it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to the Black Keys’ more attentive fans, who, among the ones I’ve spoken to, generally approve of the expanded sonic palette of Attack & Release.
Keep It Hid is lovely, as I’ve said, but that’s not really what we need to be discussing here; Auerbach’s solo album can stand on its own merits. What really needs to be said, and said loudly and repeatedly, is that it’s time for The Black Keys to put two and two together (meaning Carney’s drumming with the sort of songs Auerbach cooked up for Keep It Hid; “My Last Mistake” is a great song toward the end of the album, by the way, but it is the tune that most egregiously suffers for the lack of Carney drumming) and just become a bigger band. They can add a few more musicians and not sacrifice their deliciously old school sound and no one with a brain or an appreciative ear would accuse them of selling out.