The Black Keys

A band’s true challenge lies in how they manage to remain relevant.

This is what separates the good from the bad — if one can captivate rather than remain stagnant, the results are often successful. Although both groups have been around for some time, Ohio blues-rock duo The Black Keys and Pennsylvania hip-hop collective The Roots have continued to challenge contemporaries in their respective fields.

Following 2010’s Brothers, The Black Keys present El Camino, a combination of polished production from producer Danger Mouse, and hard-driving guitar and drums. Unlike its predecessor, El Camino shows the band exchanging their soulful, moody beginnings for something more upbeat and lively. For example, “Dead and Gone” opens with pounding bass drum, and reverberating Beach Boys surf guitar. Along with the gospel choir-like claps and background vocals, “Dead and Gone” is vibrant with beach-y energy and vigor.

“Run Right Back” struts with a sexiness that features distorted, ZZ Top riffs and unrelenting, pulsating drums. “Hell of A Season” is irresistible. It punches with a subtle punk rock aggressiveness: Vocalist Dan Auerbach fearlessly croons over Patrick Carney’s thrashing drums.

El Camino embodies the bigger-than-life sound The Black Keys have always been known for. The melodic choruses accompany the duo’s gritty abrasiveness, allowing for moments of pure sweetness from unholy racket. The group confidently strides with simplified musicianship, making each song memorable for their kooky hooks.

Although the band’s more refined sound may seem to take away from the rough-edged dirtiness of Brothers, El Camino comes off as the band’s most sensual and attractive album yet.

Whereas The Black Keys’ power relies on the unity between cacophonous guitar and drums, The Roots’ mixture of soulful, hip hop-driven arrangements and insightful lyrical content is the definitive component of one of hip-hop’s most intriguing groups.

Taking a break from providing funky interludes on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” The Roots return with their 13th album, Undun. They have always prided themselves on being at the forefront of eclecticism. From the Radiohead-sampled “Atonement,” to the social commentary that is “How I Got Over,” The Roots find pleasure in pushing the boundaries of the vast collection of genres their music encompasses. Undun continues in a similar path as its predecessors, but shows the band’s growth as captivating storytellers.

Opener “Dun” foreshadows the crescendoing brilliance of the album. Spacey synths segue into “Sleep,” a brief, psychedelic-funk odyssey that transitions into the laid-back “Kool On.” Featuring a call and response between Jimi Hendrix riffs and gospel church organs, “Kool On” swaggers with guest appearances from Greg Porn and Truck North.

The uplifting “The Other Side” showcases vocalist Tariq Trotter’s distinctive vocal delivery. Alongside the militancy of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and the insightful narratives of Mos Def, Trotter’s in-your-face delivery compliments the fluidity of the musical arrangements backing him. “Step in my arena let me show y’all who the highness is,” Trotter confidently proclaims, his voice revealing a discomfort with the world that surrounds him.

Undun is beautifully dark. With each song there is one giant step into the unknown, revealing feelings of loneliness, cynicism and acceptance. The production is nearly impeccable; from the piano-driven Sufjan Stevens-featuring “Redford” to the raucous free-jazz apocalypse of “Possibility,” Undun is riveting in that it shows a musical growth that is cohesive and veracious. It moves like a well-written orchestral piece, calm and serene one moment, powerful and grandiose another, leaving you mesmerized until the very end. 

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Remarkable new releases captivate fans


The Ettes will be performing tonight at Emo’s to promote their new album. (Wicked Will | Photo courtesy of The Ettes)

Lindsay “Coco” Hames, Maria “Poni” Silver and Jeremy “Jem” Cohen make up Nashville rock trio The Ettes. Currently on tour, the band will perform at Emo’s tonight.

The Ettes have slowly gained momentum touring with big name bands such as The Black Keys, The Dead Weather and Kings of Leon. They’ve also performed at numerous music festivals, including last year’s Austin City Limits. The band was also featured on the ACL 2010 music sampler from the festival, an impressive feat considering only 34 bands out of 130 make the list.

The band has five albums under its belt with its latest, Wicked Will, just released earlier this month to rave reviews. The album can be described as a coming of age album as well as an album for punk rockers alike. Their music is filled with strong beats, brilliant guitar riffs and tons of attitude — meanwhile, Hame’s voice is simply enthralling. In an Aug. 2 interview with Interview Magazine, Hames discussed some of the themes of the record.

“There’s a lot of things I like in my songwriting — mainly this kind of frustration,” Hames told the magazine. “I’m not a terribly good talker, so I’ve always felt better represented by my writing. And in relationships, romantic and otherwise, you’re placed in this world in this strange generation that we’re a part of where everything is insane and nothing is like what it was growing up. There’s so much that could be and a lot of hope and curiosity about that.”

Hames also mentions some of her favorite tracks, which include “Teeth” and “Worse There Is” due to their slow tempo and blunt lyrics.

The Ettes have other side projects and talents that go beyond the stage. The group plays with the band The Parting Gifts, who have also collaborated with Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and Patrick Keeler of The Raconteurs. In addition, drummer Maria Silver is set to launch her own clothing line. With a crazy tour schedule, the release of five albums in the course of six years and abundant talent it’s no wonder that Spin magazine lists The Ettes as a Band You Need to Hear Now. 

The Ettes- Teeth by bladesofgrass

Printed on August 30, 2011 as: Punk rock trio comes of age, tells of frustration and relationships

With the breakup of The White Stripes, The Black Keys has become one of the only mainstream blues-rock bands still jamming out. However, Rival Sons are looking to join The Black Keys with their second album, Pressure & Time.

The album is content with being pure down-and-dirty southern rock; no pussyfooting here. On “Young Love,” the guitar cackles and the bass thumps as lead singer Jay Buchanan’s deep, thundering vocals take charge and sing of just loving someone so much. The rhythms of “Pressure and Time” never stop with the back-up vocals that ask, “Can we build it up?” reaching soul sermon territory.

Pressure & Time only slows down on closer “Face of Light” as the band restrains the clashing, and Buchanan takes time to agonizingly sing every word of the sparkle of a girl’s face. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

For the rollicking good time they are having, Rival Sons does little lyrically or musically to push blues-rock into the new decade. At its worst, they come off as a Led Zeppelin cover band, but a damn good one at that. Such a worry seems to be the last thing on Rival Sons’ mind ­— all they want to do is rock out and have a good time.