The Black Keys are America's finest rock & roll band, despite what Jack White says when he's not fellating himself. The Akron, Ohio-based duo has continued to widen the cast of their soulful blues rock during their eight-year, five-album run on hip Warner Bros. imprint Nonesuch Records, culminating with their first No. 1 album in May's Turn Blue.
Their humble beginnings included 2003's Thickfreakness, recorded in an old tire lab. That thick, unhealthy air infused with the Keys' primitive crackle, such that guitarist Dan Auerbach was coughing up black stuff for months afterwards.
At least that's what he told me back when they were on Mississippi blues label Fat Possum, with a single album under their belts and playfully made-up colorful faux backgrounds.
"It's much more interesting to write about how T-Model has scars on his legs from a chain gang than what an awesome guitar player he is," Auerbach explained at the time. "When you manufacture a CD, it turns into a business whether you want it to or not."
That's in case you wondered if the Black Keys started savvy.
The next time I encountered a Black Key was at a co-worker's wedding reception, where I sat next to drummer Pat Carney, who was dating another alt-weekly co-worker. We talked music all night, and I questioned their incipient decision to jump to Nonesuch.
How many bands have attempted that jump, failed and had it break them spiritually, creatively or both? My fortune: preaching to one of the rule's nascent token exceptions.
I spoke to Carney again three years later. They'd just finished the underappreciated collaboration with Danger Mouse, Attack & Release, which really showcased their ability to open up their sound and songwriting. When we talked, Carney was exalting the virtues of the bus, now enjoying the Black Keys' second U.S. tour with one.
"We said we'd never do it, but it's awesome," he said, explaining that their manager and accountant had talked them into it. "We did it, and it was awesome. It was cooler because you can like play a show and go to the bar, whatever."
That was actually the last time I spoke to Carney. A year later he was gone, beating LeBron out of Ohio by a calendar cycle. Auerbach moved to Nashville and opened a recording studio there. After a bite of the Big Apple, Carney joined him.
"I just remember through my 20s being adamant about never leaving Akron, because all of my friends were leaving," Carney told his now-local alt-weekly, the Nashville Scene, last week. "It just hit me when I was 29, I was like, 'I've gotta get the fuck out too ... In a lot of ways, Nashville reminds me of Akron."
At some point before the two left, Carney related to a good friend of mine how the Black Keys had an opportunity to meet Lou Reed and he was a real dick to them. It's something I thought about after four weeks passed waiting for a chance to talk that never came. I'm not trying to pin them with rock-star pretensions. Indeed, I'm pointing out the uselessness of such outside perspectives.
How can you know how your life will affect you in your early 20s? Sell out? Only a juvenile would couch things in such black-and-white terms. Things and people change. Who's to say if a few decades at a certain level couldn't make anyone as pretentious as Bono or unwelcoming as Lou Reed?