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You could, if you didn't really pay attention, dismiss The Black Keys' The Big Come Up as "more white-guys-play-the-blues stuff."



The blues lives thanks to the Black Keys.


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the drama you've been craving

by Michael Goldberg

Monday, December 16, 2002

What Frank Black And The Black Keys Have In Common

Albums from the past and present that will gladden your day, brighten your world.

Just when I'm feeling like I've come up against a dead end, a new piece of music, often something I had no real expectation about, shows me a way out — and way in.

Recently, its been two albums — one old, one new, both previously unheard — that have me shouting from rooftops, dancing in the street, doing somersaults in the living room, feeling that rush that comes each time a great song hits the cranial pleasure zone.

One of them, Frank Black's Teenager of the Year, was released in 1994, and I have no idea how I missed it. The other, the Black Keys' debut, The Big Come Up, came out earlier this year, but I only heard it for the first time last week.

Abstract Plain

One of the amazing things about music is the way it can lift the spirits, pull you out of a funk. How is this possible? There you are, feeling bummed out due to God knows what ridiculous thing that happened or mind-game you're playing on yourself, when all of a sudden, as guitars shower a sense of euphoria upon you, you're singing along with Frank Black as he proclaims, "I want to live on an abstract plain/ I need a new address/ Tell me I'm not insane/ Is it up or down?/ I want to live on an abstract plain."

Or, perhaps even better, the chorus to "Headache," which is insanely catchy and which you just have to play over and over (like The Pixies' best songs): "This wrinkle in time, I can't give it no credit/ I thought about my space and I really got me down/ (got me down)/ Got me so down, I got me a headache/ My heart is crammed in my cranium and it still knows how to pound."

Frank Black, as you well know I'm sure, used to lead The Pixies. Back then, although his real name is Chester Thompson, he called himself Black Francis.. He's had kind of a long commercial decline since he broke up that band in 1993, renamed himself Frank Black and began recording solo albums. But his first three — 1993's Frank Black, Teenager of the Year and 1996's The Cult of Ray — are each mostly brilliant and essential works, as I've discovered lately (more recent efforts have been disappointing).

One of my fave writers, Camden Joy, wrote an essay titled "The Greatest Record Album Ever Told," which is all about Teenager of the Year and Frank Black. That essay appears in a collection of his writings titled "Lost Joy" (TNI Books), published this year, which I found at the online bookstore known as Amazon. I tell you this so you won't waste time trying to find it in an offline bookstore. I have searched for this and other books by Camden Joy and can tell you that at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, you will not find them at huge chains or at smaller stores either. I did find a copy of Joy's earlier book, "The Last Rock Star Book, or Liz Phair: A Rant" (Verse Chorus), but at a record store! Three cheers for Aquarius Records!

Anyway. Joy wrote: "And oh dear reader have you never drunked chocolate milk that like candied paint went down, gooey and fine, for this best connotes that blissful day I first made the acquaintance of this Teenager of the Year. I cannot really put words to how life seemed before then: unpulled together, dreamy, disconnected, I believe it was fine but who can say, who can guarantee this vague past I recall is even my own and what is a true memory anyways anymore..."

Let's just say that he's right. Once you've heard Teenager of the Year, really heard it, you just may divide your life into pre-TOTY and post-TOTY. If you don't already have it, get yourself a copy.

Do The Rump

Akron, Ohio's the Black Keys — guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — have generated the kind of media buzz not seen since the release of The Strokes' EP, The Modern Age, in early 2001. As was the case with The Strokes, it's well deserved. On the surface, there's nothing new about The Big Come Up. You could, if you didn't really pay attention, dismiss the album as "more white-guys-play-the-blues stuff." But you don't want to do that. No sir! No ma'am! That's 'cause these guys have got that special something that makes their music, certainly on record (I haven't seen 'em perform, but those that have think live trumps the album), transcend all the influences and blues clichés.

A primal energy infuses The Big Come Up. "Do the Rump" is a grooving boogie that may be about the kind of sex Snoop Dogg once named an album after. In the Stax/Volt-influenced medium-tempo ballad, "I'll Be Your Man," the way Auerbach sings his simple, straightforward come-on, rather than the words themselves — "Need a new love/ Hey, I'm ready/ Want my time/ Hey I'm willin'" — says everything.

More on that voice. At times it might remind you of Gregg Allman, back when Gregg was just a kid, but it also sounds like the voice of an old guy (the way Dylan at 20 sounded "old"), only an old guy with a lot of youthful spunk. And it's soulful and real. It's an unforgettable voice, one that I hope we'll be hearing a lot more of in years to come.

In addition to the duo's original songs (which sound like classic blues and R&B standards), there's a cool cover of The Beatles' "She Said, She Said," which says a lot. Namely: 1) These guys aren't averse to making a rock or even pop move at some point, and; 2) They've got the guts to take on the biggest group in the history of pop music.

Thanks to Frank Black and the Black Keys, I been smiling all week. "I'm Sir Rockaby," Frank Black sings in the song of the same name. "And rockin' I am/ I'm Sir Rockaby/ And rockin' I am." Agreed.

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