LP Review: The Black Keys Return With “Let’s Rock” – Yes, Indeed!

image

I have finally found the rock and roll album for the Summer of ’19. ‘Let’s Rock’ by the Black Keys! Hell yes! Baby, let’s rock!

I was beginning to wonder if we’d get any more rock and roll this year… it’s been thin for those of us who like to hear squalling guitar and big drums. I was also beginning to wonder if the Black Keys were even still a band. It’s been five years since their last album, Turn Blue. I went back recently and listened to that album in the hopes it would break my liking-every-other-album cycle with the Black Keys, but alas I found the album, well, kind of a bummer. And I like sad music, just see my Neil Young collection. The good news about my not liking Turn Blue is it boded well for the new album. I had absolutely loved El Camino, the predecessor to Turn Blue. I don’t know what it is about these guys, they zig and I zag… but we always meet on the next album.

In the interim, lead singer/guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Dan Auerbach released a solo album, Waiting On A Song that was a really strong, “summery” record in its own right, LP Review: Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) Solo, Poppy ‘Waiting On A Song’. He also produced a host of other artists. I know drummer Patrick Carney also did some producing. And I just read in Rolling Stone magazine, Carney somehow made peace with Jack White who had been reported as hating the Black Keys “for ripping the White Stripes off.” Jack said that Carney came over to his house in Nashville while White was recording with the Raconteurs and loaned him a microphone. Nothing like reaching out with the olive branch microphone. Peace was made. We can’t have rock bands feuding… this isn’t hip hop and there are far too few rock bands left.

I also read on Wikipedia that Auerbach said he prefers creating the music (writing/producing/recording) and had grown weary of touring, which he described as “necessary” after you’ve released an album. He was jamming with Joe Walsh – and let me tell you, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for that – and Auerbach started to get the itch to play with Carney again… And let me just say as an aside, if Auerbach is producing a Joe Walsh solo album, can I just be the first to say, YES PLEASE!! Carney and Auerbach hadn’t so much as spoken in quite some time… but apparently the chemistry they have ignited immediately. Joe Strummer said it best, “never underestimate the power of the chemistry of four guys in a room.” In this case it’s two guys, but you get my point. And I do mean two guys literally. For the first time in five or six albums, Danger Mouse didn’t produce this record. The Black Keys produced it themselves. The only other musicians on this album are two back up singers, Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson. I have to assume with that name, Ms. Wilcoxson was teased in high school, but I’ll leave that alone. I should also mention that for the first time in a few records, there are no keyboards on this album… I mean, that’s all you gotta know.

When I saw the album was titled, “Let’s Rock” I assumed there was some epic story where the two guys in the band reunited after the long separation – sort of like when Joliet Jake gets out of jail in the movie The Blues Brothers and is reunited with Elwood while “She Caught the Katy” plays in the background… and one of them looked at the other and said, “Let’s rock,” and they immediately lock into a groove that ended up being “Lo/Hi.” That would have made for a great story. Unfortunately it’s a different story. Apparently the state of Tennessee executed a guy in the electric chair (hence the cover art) for the first time in 14 years. When asked if he had anything to say, the guy just said, “Let’s rock.” Not the story I’d hoped for but in these dark times, perhaps it’s the story we deserve… but I digress.

I liked this album immediately upon first listen, something that doesn’t always happen these days. I will admit, it’s a tad more polished than their earlier work and it sort of glided by on that first listen, almost too quickly. But after hearing it, damn, if the melodies didn’t stick in my head. The rocking “Lo/Hi” and perhaps my favorite track, “Tell Me Lies” would be running through my head when I woke up in the morning. The Rock Chick liked the album as well, but in the interest of full disclosure, she’s always liked the earlier, more raw albums. She really digs the debut, The Big Come Up. I’m beginning to think the Rock Chick may be, unbeknownst to her, like the heroin of the Ramones’ tune, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” The Keys early records sound like they were recorded in a basement with the vocals distorted, almost like they’re running them through the harmonica microphone. Auerbach sang like he had a small dollop of Howlin Wolf in there. It sounds like they taped a microphone to a Marshall amp and turned it up to 11… Believe me I get it, I dig that early stuff too. This may be more polished, but the guitar sound still grabs me.

This album is a predominately a guitar forward upbeat record. It starts off with three great tracks, “Shine A Little Light” (which could have been on Auerbach’s last solo disc), “Eagle Birds” which has a crazy good guitar solo and the first single, “Lo/Hi” (The Black Keys: Fabulous, Dirty Rock New Single, “Lo/Hi”). They take a bit of a left turn with an almost psychedelic ballad on “Walk Across the Water,” followed by “Tell Me Lies” which starts with a slow groove and then builds, drops back to the groove… rinse repeat. I love that track. While the music is rocking and up beat, the lyrics belie a darker, heavier feel. It’s like the narrator of the song is rocking his blues away. “Get Yourself Together” and “Sit Around Missing You” certainly are examples of what I’m talking about. What was it Tom Waits said…”I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

This is far from a monochromatic record… don’t think it’s all upbeat rock songs. Most of them are but there are quieter moments. “Breaking Down” starts with a sitar-like sounding little guitar figure. It’s more mid tempo but it chugs along thanks to Carney’s propulsive drumming. “Sit Around And Miss You” is built on an acoustic, strumming guitar. The only track that threw me bit was “Fire Walk With Me.” It’s another great rock song, but the title… are these guys Twin Peaks fans?

I recommend this album as strongly as I can. It’s just a great rock and roll record and perfect for the summer. And… spoiler alert… this is a definite candidate for the B&V best albums of the year. Turn this one up loud and enjoy!

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese – What Happened?

Rolling-Thunder-Martin-Scorsese-Bob-Dylan-header

Image taken from the internet, likely copyrighted. 

I should have known…

I was never a big Dustin Hoffman fan and I certainly had no desire to see his movie, Tootsie. Someone invariably drug me to the movie and in retrospect I’m glad I saw it for one and only one reason, comedy legend Bill Murray. Apparently Hoffman met Murray at a party and invited him to be in the movie. When Murray agreed, they had to change the script and create a new character for him to play in order to write him into the story. In the movie, he plays struggling actor Hoffman’s struggling playwright roommate. I assume the script looked something like this:

ANY OTHER CHARACTER: “Blah, blah blah”

BILL MURRAY: Ad-lib something hysterical.

In the movie, Hoffman and Murray (the roommates) have a big party. There’s a scene where Murray is drinking and talking to a table full of people. He says, “When someone sees one of my plays, I don’t want them to come up to me afterward and say, “I saw your play and I was moved, I saw your play and I loved it.” I want them to say, “I saw your play. What happened?”

With that as a backdrop, after finally completing all 2 hours and 16 minutes of this “documentary,” all I can say is… wait, what happened? Scorsese is of course a brilliant director of full length films. He also has his rock and roll film bona fides. He filmed the Band’s The Last Waltz which is one of the best concert movies ever. He’s even done a nice job before on Dylan on No Direction Home, which also had a soundtrack that ended up a volume in Dylan’s long running Bootleg series. Admittedly, he looks like a clown in the Stones’ concert film he did, Shine a Light, running around like an idiot begging for a set list…but I try to forget that part of the movie.

I tuned into this thing expecting a straight up documentary. The Rolling Thunder Revue has always had a bit of a mythical quality to it. Dylan was coming off the critical and commercial success of Blood On The Tracks. That album clearly documents the beginning of the end of his first marriage to Sara Dylan. His last tour had been the big extravaganza in 1974 with the Band. For reasons unclear, Dylan retreated to his old stomping grounds in New York, in the Village and gathered a bunch of friends at Gerde’s, a folk music bar. Loose jam sessions ensued. He invited Jacques Levy to write some songs that eventually became the acclaimed album Desire. 

Dylan decided to take his group of friends, who had been jamming in the Village, out on the road, in the style of an old folky hootenanny. They did one leg before Desire and one after. The idea was to play smaller venues for people who typically couldn’t afford “good seats” in arenas. Dylan wanted to get more intimate and close to his audience. He took a host of people with him – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, poet Allen Ginsberg, Ronnie Hawkins (who Dylan stole the Band from), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot amongst others. Patti Smith declined to join but on the second leg it looks like Joni Mitchell joined. It sounds like a great party… if I hadn’t been in grade school, I’d have loved to ride along but I digress. The show really was a Revue, but Dylan was clearly the draw.

I think the reason this period of Dylan’s career has such a mystique is a) it was during a period when he created what many describe as his final masterpiece, Desire and b) it was never really appropriately documented except for the rather slip shod live album, Hard Rain. Although I would argue that Volume 5 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, which cobbled together various performances from the Rolling Thunder Revue shed an all new light on the proceedings. He also recently released a 14 CD box set from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour featuring everything from rehearsals to complete concerts. It appears this Scorsese release was timed to accompany and call attention to the box set. I love Dylan, and I love his bootleg series, but 14 discs is too much even for this Dylan-phile.

I teed this opus up last weekend and again I expected something along the lines of No Direction Home. I should have known during the opening credits I was not going to get what I expected when I saw the subtitle, “A Bob Dylan Story.” All of the current interview segments in this thing are fictional. I thought I was seeing a revelation when actress Sharon Stone comes on and says she met Dylan on the tour as a 19 year old and he hit on her with the song “Just Like a Woman” only to find out she was never on the tour…she was also only 17 when the tour occurred. Dylan claims he doesn’t remember anything about Rolling Thunder. There’s an actor who plays a fictional director who filmed the tour… actually Dylan directed all of the footage in this thing back in the 70s for a movie Renaldo and Clara. Most of this film is outtakes from that footage. At the end there’s a fictional Congressman (played by a guy who played a fictional Congressman on TV) who claims Jimmy Carter was a Rolling Thunder Revue/Dylan fan and hooked him up with tickets for a Niagra Falls show. Sigh.

I had really only one burning question about the Rolling Thunder Revue. What the hell was Mick Ronson, who had just been let go as David Bowie’s guitarist in the Spiders From Mars, doing on this tour? No one has ever answered that question to my satisfaction. Alas, this documentary never touches on that subject. There is a lot of live, concert footage in this movie. Dylan appears in the iconic cowboy hat with flowers strewn all over it, with white face paint on. I have to admit he rocks a really good scarf game. I said to the Rock Chick, while watching one of the live shots, “Do you think I can pull off that scarf look?” I’m still waiting for an answer.

What I like most about the live concert footage, is it shows what command Dylan has on stage with his band. He can stop or start a musician with a glance. I hadn’t seen that much control on stage with a band since James Brown. He’s got around 15 people on stage, so that’s quite a feat. One of the unsung heroes of this period in Dylan’s career was the space alien-violinist Scarlett Rivera. She comes across in this documentary as someone who likely sleeps in a coffin, but her violin is front and center. She stands to Dylan’s right on stage, and she’s pretty amazing. I love every moment that Joan Baez is on screen. Whether she’s dancing a “boogaloo” on stage or being interviewed about “Dylan,” she’s great. She was indeed, at one time, his equal (and a former lover).

There are a few live scenes that I really enjoyed. In one they perform in what looks like a lady’s mahjong tournament. Ginsberg uses the word vagina on stage in front of a group of grandmothers. Old ladies dancing around to Dylan… surreal. There’s also a cool sequence where Dylan plays “Ira Hayes” (made famous by Johnny Cash) at an Indian Reservation. It’s interesting in a, what the hell was going on in the 70s, kind of a way.

There have always been two Bob Dylans. The real one, and the one he presents to the public. Since he was dubbed the “Voice Of His Generation” he’s done everything he can to deconstruct and manipulate that public persona. He takes every chance he can get to change people’s perception of every stage of his career and that’s what this “documentary” is all about. Maybe he was just having a laugh, and didn’t want to play it straight here. Who knows, it’s Dylan.

If you’re a Dylan fan, and you’ve never seen footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue this is a must see. Just ignore the fictional interview segments. Do not approach this film thinking it’s going to shed any new light on Dylan or the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Have a Happy Independence Day for our US readers and remember… sparklers are really hot and can burn you. Never hold a firecracker in your hand, you want to get through this weekend with all 10 fingers.

Cheers!