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Steady As They Go: The uncluttered appeal of The Black Keys and The Raconteurs

You need to take this music for what it is.

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Steady as they go

Expectations are so much higher when well-known, experienced artists deliver new music. Bands like The Black Keys and The Raconteurs (The Saboteurs here in Australia) have produced that much impressive, timeless rock n’ roll music that when both announced new albums, the hype was through the roof, for good reason. I was over the moon to hear Let’s Rock by The Black Keys and Help Us Stranger by The Raconteurs, as I am always impressed by what both bands can produce, but it seems not everyone was as impressed as I was.

Successful bands like these two are harshly criticized because of their status and criticized even harder because of their previous success. It is harder to impress when releasing new music. I have observed that it has been increasingly difficult for The Black Keys and The Raconteurs to please everyone. The bands have been criticized for lacking clarity, being less compelling, dull, a lack of conviction and less ambitious. Most of these criticisms have come from Pitchfork and other sites, but in no way do I think either albums are lacking anything. Both bands have taken a break and have come back passionate and determined to once again produce some classics.  

The Black Keys have released a solid album. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney work so well together, they know exactly how to make rock n’ roll catchy without throwing out the integrity (like in “Go“). They supply guitar riffs in pretty much every song that encourages you to play along, as it’s not overly fancy music, yet is so thrilling. If you isolated all aspects of The Black Keys, it wouldn’t seem as effective, but the compilation of the drums, guitar, and Auerbach’s diverse voice makes for the tastiest recipe. One of the main attractions of The Black Keys, is the fact that Auerbach has such a sweet, gentle voice. And this great combination of classic rock sounds paired with that delicate, skillful voice that is a match that is not often seen. Let’s Rock was written from scratch in the studio, there was no pre-planning or recording, and if that ain’t rock n’ roll then I don’t know what is. Carney told RollingStone; “Auerbach played most of the guitar solos live; he’d simply stop playing rhythm and kick into lead”. They’ve taken a well-earned break, and have come back excited and inspired to work together again and their melodies and riffs are approachable, catchy and just as impressive as every other album they have produced.  

The Raconteurs are just as well strung and assembled. Right from the very beginning “Help Me Stranger” is ready to impress you. The album demonstrates a nice variety of fast and slow, acoustic and restraint, and going all out. It showcases the best of all the band members. “Don’t Bother Me” parades the full brunt of the band. With the classic Jack White yell/sing, it’s flat out from the beginning and that damn break down in the middle gets me real excited every time. I can’t fault this song. It changes paces and direction and manages to stay the same amount of epic all throughout. According to the commentary, “Shine The Light On Me” was recorded for White’s solo album, which you can tell straight away; it’s very Jack White. What’s impressive about The Raconteurs is that they can explore influences of other genres within their songs. “Somedays I Don’t Feel Like Trying” adds a country/western guitar that brings a different feel to this song, and the elements of doo-wops and different harmonies have produced songs like “Now That You’re Gone”, a type of ballad within a heavy rock n’ roll song. When I first listened to this album, my notes for “Sunday Driver” read: ‘the guitar riff is awesome, the bridge is awesome, everything about this song is awesome.’ You can feel the proudness of this song, it’s just an amazing rock n’ roll track that offers everything a song like this needs to offer, and the same can be said about “Live A Lie”. “What’s Yours Is Mine” screams Jack White. The intro is bloody fantastic and the sounds of both guitars are impressive. The harmonies are lovely, the collaboration between them is well heard, it always sounds like a group effort, even if it stems from one person and then grows to everyone. It’s a good mix of White’s ideas running crazy, and then homing in with Brendon Benson’s melodic genius. The Raconteurs are a band that really know what they are doing.

The New York Times claimed, “In an era of blatantly computerized pop, Let’s Rock flaunts basics from yesteryear: guitars, drums, vocals”. And this is where I think there has been some misinterpretation. You need to take this music for what it is. Yes, so many bands excel and explore different pathways and there are so many new pathways musicians can take these days, but The Black Keys along with The Raconteurs are flaunting the basics and the roots of music, perhaps it is even more impressive that they can restrain from additions to their music (that they probably would get criticized for even more). This music works and they are showcasing what works so well. They’re not being pretentious about it, if anything the simplicity of it should show a humbleness. It’s just epic guitar riffs and composed music, if you’ve got the knowledge and experience why should they be punished for that? Both albums are playful and exciting. I stand my ground when I say both albums are needed today. They are uncluttered and are both strong outings by professionals of the trade.

The Black Keys’ Let’s Rock and The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger are both out now.

Reviews

The Ritualists – Painted People

The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music

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ritualists

After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.

“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.

Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.

“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.

There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.

(Out Of Line Music)

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Reviews

The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street

What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk

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The Decline

It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.

Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.

From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?

What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).

Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.

(Pee Records / Thousand Islands Records / Disconnect Disconnect Records / Bearded Punk Records)

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