Blacks and Blues
On Blues Bands Vs. Bluesy Bands

This week, I’m looking forward to the reissues of the first three Led Zeppelin albums. And it’s got me thinking about blues bands versus bluesy bands.

I’ve never been a big fan of blues. Like country, I have a greater appreciation for the earliest material, the true bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Skip James. There’s a heart and soul to this howling, dusty music, one that is impossible to replicate. And yet, blues musicians have been trying to replicate it for a hundred years. The entire genre has ossified, to the point where “authenticity” means you need to repeat the same old chord cycles again and again, and sing about the same things your idols did, in the same way.

So that’s blues, and there’s no arguing the fact that it’s a vital and important part of music history. Every brand of rock and roll owes its very existence to the blues. But I need my music to grow and change, and since “blues” has come to mean just this one thing, done just this one way, we need a new term for those who are trying to incorporate the blues while pushing it forward. That’s where “bluesy” comes in.

You can make a strong argument that Led Zeppelin was a blues band, at least at first. They covered Willie Dixon twice on their first record, stole Muddy Waters’ (by way of Dixon) “You Need Love” for “Whole Lotta Love,” and swiped lines from Albert King, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf for “The Lemon Song.” They were always steeped in the blues – in later years, they developed an epic 11-minute take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “In My Time of Dying,” and later, a reinvented version of Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

But no one remembers them as a blues band. That’s because they took that firm foundation and built a skyscraper on it – Zeppelin dabbled in folk, reggae, prog and dance, all with the thunderous power of pure rock. They’re known as one of the best rock bands ever, with one of the most diverse and fascinating catalogs. And through it all, they remained bluesy. Not blues, but bluesy. They maintained their sense of history, and constantly acknowledged their debt to the blues, while building on it and creating something new.

That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in. Both of the bands I have on tap this week do the same thing, to varying degrees. Both are neck-deep in the blues, but you won’t find either one angling to be on Alligator Records, or share the stage with the likes of Buddy Guy and B.B. King. They know where they come from, where the cornerstones were laid, but they’re both consciously working on new buildings.

That’s certainly true of the Black Keys, who began their career self-producing ramshackle records chock full of the blues. The first two tracks on their first album, The Big Come Up, are blues covers: one by R.L. Burnside, and the other by Junior Kimbrough. In 2006, they even recorded an entire EP of Kimbrough songs. But at the same time, they were also covering the Beatles and the Stooges. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have always been more than blues disciples, and impressive rock records like Magic Potion proved it.

And then they met Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse. He’s produced every one of their records since Attack and Release in 2008, and while the pairing produced some interesting left-field results early on, it’s clearly run its course. The Keys’ new album, Turn Blue, goes so far beyond boring that you could fill your prescription for Ambien with it. Everything is smoothed out and slowed down and glossed up – they barely sound like they’re alive, let alone awake.

Lowlights are many. Opener “Weight of Love” crawls in on its stomach, and keeps on crawling for an endless seven minutes. Auerbach’s guitar has never sounded tamer or safer – it’s like he took lessons from John Mayer in syruping up his sound. The title track is clearly going for some kind of smooth blues shimmy, but it’s so inconsequential that it wafts in and out without leaving a mark. “Fever” shows signs of life, with its pumping organ, but “Year in Review” buries its groove beneath layers of strings and production gloss, and the absolutely awful “Bullet in the Brain” wastes whatever good will the previous two songs built up.

And on it goes like that, the Keys submerging everything that used to be good about them beneath stifling overproduction and a lack of memorable… well, anything. The record ends with a song produced by the Keys themselves, “Gotta Get Away,” but it’s perhaps the most boring thing here, a middle-of-the-road rock number that does nothing imaginative or original. It does sound like blues-rock, in a way that most of this confused mess of a record doesn’t, but when said blues-rock is this hackneyed and typical, that’s not a virtue.

If Turn Blue proves anything, it’s that the Black Keys/Danger Mouse partnership has reached the point of diminishing returns. This is, by far, the worst product of that partnership, and one of the worst records the Keys have made. It’s time to reconsider just what they want this band to be, and they need to start by getting someone else to sit in that producer’s chair. I’d hate to think that they could make something blander and lamer than this. Let’s hope they turn it around.

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So let’s say you bought Turn Blue, hoping for a strong and smart bluesy rock record, and you found it just as stultifying and dull as I did. If you’re looking to trade up, you could do a lot worse than the self-titled debut from Noah’s Arcade.

Full disclosure: I know these guys. I’ve seen them play probably a dozen times, and I’ve talked with them all about this record, both before and after I heard it. Noah’s Arcade is a three-piece from Aurora, Illinois (natch), consisting of guitarist/singer Noah Gabriel with the best rhythm section in the city, bassist Chad Watson and drummer Justin O’Connell. Over the past couple years, I have watched them evolve from a solo act with a backup band to a truly organic unit, bringing out the best qualities in all three.

Their debut album was primarily recorded many months ago, so it doesn’t quite capture that evolution. The songs are all Gabriel’s – he has seven prior albums as a singer/songwriter, ranging from folksy acoustic material to full-band blues-rock, and for long stretches of Noah’s Arcade, it could easily be another of those. But when the band locks in behind him, as they do on fiery opener “On the Run,” and in the more powerful second half of the album, you can hear the potential. Noah’s Arcade is an electrifying live band, and though their entire album doesn’t quite capture that, there are enough moments that do.

“On the Run” certainly starts things off well. It pinches a key riff from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” and runs with it, the band jamming with guest organist Jeff Lantz (who is all over this record). There’s nothing particularly original here, but it stomps in, kicks up some dust, and stomps out in two and a half minutes. Boom. Gabriel’s voice is perfect for this kind of thing, husky and full of soul, and his quick solo gives you your first glimpse at his chops. He’s a well-respected axe slinger in these parts, and it’s easy to hear why.

The rest of the first side is slower and moodier than I expected, which takes some getting used to. “East of Midnight” has a pulsing, mid-tempo atmosphere, O’Connell’s tricky beat propelling things forward while Gabriel spins out a sweet and memorable guitar figure. Gabriel and Watson harmonize well on this song and others, Watson taking the higher parts. But the tune’s simple chord progression, which you’ll hear a few other times on this record, keeps it grounded for me – it never quite takes off. “Electric Rain” also dances in place, this time more slowly. It’s pretty for what it is, but it never grabs me.

“Killer’s Role” is the third simple, moody song in a row, but Lantz helps elevate this one, along with some subtle playing from Gabriel. “Here We Are Now” picks things up a little, with an intro that reminds me of the Heartbreakers, and “Hard Times” injects some pure blues into the proceedings. The playing is excellent on every one of these tracks, and Watson whips out his harmonica on “Hard Times,” adding a nice texture. But after that explosive opening, the slow-to-middling nature of the rest of side one is a surprise.

Side two, however, makes up for all of that. “Lovesick Lullaby” is quick – less than two minutes long – and loud, chugging along confidently. “Beggars Never Borrow” sports the most infectious guitar riff on the album, wrapped up in a sweet, folksy number. The jam session that concludes “Of the Engine” is, to that point, my favorite thing on Noah’s Arcade – you can hear the interplay at work, Watson sparking off of O’Connell while Gabriel and Lantz spit fire. This is what they sound like live. I want the entire second Arcade album to sound like this.

Gabriel and the band save the best for last – in a lot of ways, the entire album builds to the final two tracks. “Killin’ Time” takes that chord progression you’ve heard a few times now and puts a new spin on it, slipping in and out of an energetic reggae beat. Watson and O’Connell shine on this one, nimbly skipping through these sections with grace – Watson’s solo section is superb. And “The Love,” the six-minute finale, is the album’s high point. It’s an epic, dramatic trip, starting gently and gathering force as it goes. Gabriel’s voice is at its peak here, and the entire band locks into this song, bringing it home with the power it demands. “The Love” is the best song I’ve heard from Noah Gabriel, and this rendition does it justice.

In some ways, I feel like Noah’s Arcade wraps up just as it truly hits its stride. The album gets better as it goes along, and I could listen to those final four tracks for days. If they make this stretch of songs the starting point for album number two, it will be an order of magnitude better than this already impressive first effort. The three guys in Noah’s Arcade never forget the blues, but they rarely play it straight, preferring to build off of it in some captivating ways. There’s a lot to like on their debut record, and a lot that points to great things ahead.

If they’re playing in your area, go see them. And check out their self-titled album here.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, I plan to take my customary birthday break (which I rarely indulge in, honestly) while I turn 40 years old. I’ll be back in June with some reflections on that, I’m sure.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.