On Rocking and “Rocking”
On Two New Albums the Choice is Black and White

The name of the new Black Keys album is ‘Let’s Rock’, ironic quotes and all. And I don’t think they could have summed up their aesthetic any better.

It would be tough to call the music made by Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney anything but rock, really. At their best, they traffic in guitar-heavy, blues-influenced tunes with big, familiar-sounding riffs. If you’ve heard “Lo/Hi,” the first single from ‘Let’s Rock’, you know they can sound exactly like ZZ Top at times. There are all kinds of ways to deconstruct it, but at its heart, the Black Keys play rock.

Only they don’t want to get, you know, all “rock” about it. There’s a distance to even their most straightforward music, a sort of winking acknowledgement that, should you feel like none of this is to be taken seriously, they’re right there with you. They’ll rock for you, simplistic lyrics and roadhouse riffage and all, but they’ll also stand in the wings, smoking cigarettes and chuckling at all the rocking.

The end result is a catalog full of a style of music that I don’t know if the band is fully committed to. I mean, they keep doing it, so they must enjoy it. ‘Let’s Rock’ is one of their best, too, a compact 39-minute collection of easy songs that homage the 1970s at just about every turn, but do so effectively. This is welcome after the turgid slog that was 2014’s Turn Blue. It’s also self-produced, marking the end of their four-album association with Danger Mouse, and that also turns out to be a very good thing.

Fans of real, unironic rock will find a lot to love here, from the smoky blues of “Every Little Thing” to the foot-stomping boogie of “Get Yourself Together.” The lyrics are all stupid, but no more stupid than anything Mountain ever did, for example. You can guess the rhymes as they come up, and there are no deeper sentiments on display. (I mean, “On the run, it ain’t no fun being under the gun…”) Which is very rock and roll, come to think of it – it’s always been primal music, staying on the surface.

And you’ll be too busy enjoying the grooves here to care. That ZZ Top beat strikes more than once here, most effectively on “Go,” one of the most convincing slabs of guitar-pop the Keys have given us. (It’s buried at track nine, but don’t miss it.) I’m a fan of the shadows on “Tell Me Lies” and the McCartney-esque sunlight on “Sit Around and Miss You.” The closing “Fire Walk With Me” isn’t the treasure chest of Twin Peaks references I’d hoped, but it is the twelfth good song in a row, and that’s all you can really ask for.

I still think Auerbach and Carney don’t feel this music down to their bones. There’s an element of pastiche, of commentary, of “rocking” instead of rocking. If that matters to you, the Black Keys might never get you where you need them to. If it matters less to you, I will say that ‘Let’s Rock’ is the best record they’ve made in some time, and if that’s enough for you, you should check it out.

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One thing you have to say about Jack White: if nothing else, he feels the music he makes. Since emerging on the scene with the White Stripes, he’s delivered album after album of messy, bluesy guitar rock, drawing from a deep river of influences stretching back a hundred years. He’s somehow mastered the art of being reverential while also being irreverent. He’s often working hard to sound like his blues-rock heroes, but he never feels enslaved to their sounds. He makes Jack White music, and though it might take many forms, it always sounds like Jack White.

That’s true even when he’s just one part of a larger whole, as he is in the Raconteurs. Emerging in 2006 on the back of killer single “Steady, As She Goes,” the Raconteurs established themselves as one of White’s most interesting going concerns. The band includes pop maestro Brendan Benson and two members of the Greenhornes, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, and the songs are written democratically, with White and Benson trading off lead vocal duties.

After two records back to back, the Raconteurs took 11 years off, but now they’re back with a pretty swell third album, Help Us Stranger. This one feels a little more off the cuff than their previous efforts (but not nearly as accidental as White’s last solo record, Boarding House Reach), but it still ably shows off how well White and Benson converge. White gives Benson’s melodies a punch, while Benson sweetens White’s rawer edges. The result is a compelling rock album that feels spontaneous but never careens off the rails.

One of the best examples of White and Benson playing to each other’s strengths is the mini-epic “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying).” Its melody feels like pure Benson, its churning chorus riff underpinning the two lead singers as they repeat their frustration and sadness. But then everything stops, a strum begins, and White cranks up the noise for the rousing singalong coda: “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet…”

Much of this record feels like encouragement in desperate times, like injecting hope into a world gone crazy. The title track is about how we should all help and care for those we don’t know, which seems like an elementary sentiment until you look around and see how much we need that message now. “What’s Yours is Mine” takes aim at the entire idea of personal property, and closer “Thoughts and Prayers,” which I expected to be sarcastic and bitter, is actually dark and pleading: “There’s got to be a better way to contact God and hear her say there are reasons why it is this way…”

Sure, there are throwaway rockers, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “Sunday Driver,” and there’s even one wicked bluesy breakup number (“Now That You’re Gone,” with Benson singing and White wailing on the guitar). But there are some very well considered pieces here as well. “Shine the Light on Me” might be my favorite thing here – over a piano part played by Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age, the Dead Weather), Benson and White harmonize on a Zeppelin-meets-Abbey-Road melody, singing about finding light in the darkest places. All by itself this song justifies bringing the Raconteurs back from the dead.

Even a casual listen will, I think, illuminate the difference between the Black Keys, who stand on the sidelines, and Jack White, who dives right in. Help Us Stranger is another strong, solid effort from this multifaceted talent, and a welcome return for his collaborations with Benson and the rest of the band. It never “rocks,” but it rocks like crazy, and while I don’t mind the former, I vastly prefer the latter.

Next week, a bunch of records I missed during my month off. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.