The Black Keys’ new album “Let’s Rock” is out now, and to celebrate the release, Taylor Macgregor drinks his way through some selections (aka easiest ones to find on Spotify) from the band’s acclaimed discography.
In all honesty, it’s been a long time since I listened to The Black Keys. But when the YouTube algorithm fed me the music video for their comeback single ‘Go’ the other week, it was reassuring to see that I wasn’t alone in having them slip slightly from my musical memory. The video shows the band themselves acknowledging in a self-aware, mock-bleak counselling session that they “haven’t spoken to each other in five years” and they were contractually obliged by their label to put out new music.
Now I’m sure that’s not actually the case, but you know what? ‘Go’ is good. A hooky rock’n’roll anthem driven by their still very familiar guitar sound, it looks like The Black Keys; it sounds like The Black Keys; and it reminded me that back in the day I used to go pretty, pretty hard on The Black Keys. With new album “Let’s Rock” freshly released, now seems like as good a time as any to reacquaint myself with them through a classic back catalogue deep dive.
With six albums to dig through, though, this is an exercise that demands an accompaniment. And given that The Black Keys are ageing like a fine wine, what better way than to follow the lead of your favourite upmarket restaurant and come up with a drinks pairing menu? We’ve hit the archives, we’ve scoured the cellar, we’ve had the arguments, and finally, we’ve made that list. You’re welcome.
The Big Come Up (2002) accompanied by a cheeky rum & Coke.
Things kick off rough and ready, and The Big Come Up requires a little come up of its own. Pour yourself a half-and-half rum & Coke, and recline as the slight buzz of your first drink pairs nicely with the fuzzed out blues-heavy guitars of opening track ‘Busted’. All going well, you’ll soon transcend into an appropriately grimey mood.
This first album is The Black Keys in their purest form: a scruffy guitar and a man with a drum kit singing bleak stories of lost love with enough energy to get you through the day. ‘Heavy Soul’ and ‘She Said, She Said’ put a stake in the ground for the quintessential sound of albums to come, while the stripped back sound and sombre romantic optimism of ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ makes me nostalgic
Thickfreakness (2003) accompanied by a 440ml Lion Red
A friend of mine is an OG Black Keys fan, and this is his favourite album. He also happens to be an OG Lion Red fan, which sounds about right – the filthy blues of Thickfreakness go pretty much perfectly with a filthy Red. I recommend listening to this album with a can in hand, in honour of that friend you have who loves the Warriors and may occasionally be known to describe riffs with the unfortunate term “dick-swinging”.
The long distorted note that opens the album’s title track breaks into a chunky lick of the highest order; their cover of The Sonics’ ‘Have Love, Will Travel’ is a mid-aughts classic garage anthem; and album-closer ‘I Cry Alone’ brings a touch of sparse, surprisingly subtle sadness. Overall it’s a varied experience, but there’s a vibe of no-fuss bluster throughout. Exactly like a 12-box of Reds.
Rubber Factory (2004) accompanied by a sharp shot of mid-shelf bourbon
A transitional step in The Black Keys’ move from dads playing blues in the garage to a White Stripes-style radio- and festival-ready rock’n’roll two-piece, Rubber Factory is perfect when you want to elevate the mood. Nothing too fancy, though – this one goes perfectly with a generous shot of Jack or Jim. The vocals have been cleaned up a bit, with ‘10 A.M. Automatic’ in particular a certifiable banger that, in tandem with the three drinks prior, should have you prepping for the dancing to come.
There’s a strong double denim Americana aesthetic on the album that really comes through on ‘Keep Me’ and the lap steel guitar of ‘The Lengths’, and Auerbach’s guitar has noticeably more punch to it throughout. Whether you like your bourbon neat or on the rocks, there’s only one way to enjoy Rubber Factory: loud.
Brothers (2010) accompanied by a tasty craft IPA
With unfamiliar guitar sounds, whistles, backing vocals and, by the time ‘Tighten Up’ and ‘Howlin’ For You’ come on, even the odd sing-a-long, Brothers feels like The Black Keys found a bit more flair. It’s only fair, then, that we’d recommend pairing it with something a bit more fresh and fruity than your old man’s ale.
The shimmering undertone to ‘The Go Getter’, and the new flavour to the overall production, sit as comfortably with the tried and true Black Keys formula as malty hops and crisp citrus notes on a hot weekend afternoon, and ultimately make Brothers as thrashable as anything on tap at your local gastropub. If there’s any downside here, it’s that despite being a very sweet little song about love, “Never Gonna Give You Up’ unfortunately isn’t a Rick Astley cover. But that’s a very small downside.
El Camino (2011) accompanied by an espresso martini RTD
By the time El Camino rolls around, The Black Keys had reached their pop pinnacle. ‘Twas the time of the iconic viral video for ‘Lonely Boy’, the song would see them finally break through to a mass audience, and given that it’s the record that brought them a new swathe of young-ish fans, it seems fitting to pair this album up with a surprisingly delicious Ready-to-Drink espresso martini in a can.
The caffeine hit goes well with the hooky pop, and the thick, sugary sweetness is the perfect counterpart for the album’s big, silly, unabashed rock’n’roll sound. Producer Danger Mouse brings a busy-but-crisp stadium rock sound to tracks like ‘Gold on the Ceiling’, full of backing vocals and hand claps, while ‘Little Black Submarines’ lulls you into an acoustic chill before exploding into a belting rock ballad. It feels like the lads prioritised having a good time on this one, and nothing says prioritising a good time like mixing booze with dairy.
Turn Blue (2014) accompanied by mezcal, neat
After 12 years of following a reasonably consistent garage two-piece structure, Turn Blue dips into some mid-life crisis experimentation – kind of like the album equivalent of that episode of The Sopranos where Tony trips out in the desert. With fleshed out production and the addition of busy bass lines and synths on tracks like ‘Fever’ and ’10 Lovers’, there’s a bit more space to take a breather. And while we wouldn’t necessarily recommend committing to a full-on psychedelic cactus tea, the sophisticated psych influence that comes through on this album goes perfectly with a good drop of mezcal. Preferably on a lawn, and preferably under the stars, but we don’t think The Black Keys would want you to be fussy about it.
“Let’s Rock” (2019) accompanied by a dirty martini
At first listen, their new album “Lets Rock” feels like an interesting compromise of the albums prior. This one has a much cleaner, crispier sound, and Auerbach’s vocals sound somewhat angelic on songs like ‘Every Little Thing’ compared to the cigarette scowl in the days of ‘The Big Come Up’. But that bite is still there on ‘Lo/Hi’ and ‘Eagle Birds’ where a guitar flavour reminiscent of ZZ Top really comes through. It’s a dirty martini of an album: clean and boozy with a good splash of salty olive water. After a significant break from the world of The Black Keys and feeling reflective after drinking all of this imaginary grog, it feels nice to be catching up with an old friend.
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