After the huge success of Brothers and El Camino, it’s hard to believe that The Black Keys’ debut album was recorded in the drummer’s basement.
On The Big Come Up (2002), Dan Auerbach’s vocals are as raw as those of Little Richard and Bo Diddley. His lyrics are heavier than Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” mourning over the loss of a girl in eight of the 13 songs. They’re typical blues rock lyrics (“Well, my heart goes out to you in your time of need/But you cause me pain most every time you breathe”), but they’re certainly welcome in a time where blues rock isn’t the most popular genre. Like Auerbach’s vocals, his guitar work is gritty with few impressive flourishes. He doesn’t hammer out power chords or spend 10 seconds proving his skill. Instead, he uses his guitar as a supplement to his vocals, sort of as the overdubbed harmony that the mediocre recording devices can’t maintain.
Patrick Carney doesn’t match his partner’s choice of genre, but he does complement it with another historically black style. Rather than settling for the simple beats and heavy toms of ’50s rock and roll, Carney throws in the tang-te-tang cymbals characteristic of jazz. Sometimes he even tosses in a snare to mimic a ’90s New York hip hop feel, especially in “Breaks” and “240 Years Before Your Time,” which include spoken samples that further contribute to the hip hop feel. Carney’s balance of cool snare and popping hi-hat maintains through the next six albums, as the rhythm in “Do The Rump” reappears in Brothers’ “Tighten Up.”
The Big Come Up is Jimi Hendrix in the 21st century. It’s “Twist and Shout” before it was a Beatles favorite, “Hound Dog” before Elvis wiggled his butt to it. It’s rock with a heavy soul, without the motivation of money or the desire for accessibility. That’s a characteristic of the pop industry that, unfortunately, wound its way into the Black Keys’ most recent album.