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“Is it Possible that The Black Keys Were Conceived Deliberately as an Answer to The White Stripes?”

Now, I say this almost as if I mean to imply that The Keys are subservient to The Stripes in some way (which many people would likely concur with), but that’s not necessarily the case, or what I meant to actually suggest. Actually, my juxtaposition of the two bands within the same sentence is really meant to assimilate the two, from the obvious mechanism of narrative adjacency. And really, in order to be a good rock band, you have to study the art form, from Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry up through The Rolling Stones, Television, The Cars, and so you’re naturally going to entail some mimicry within your burgeoning days. This is why many bands, such as The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, start out as de facto cover bands. In light of this, then, acting as a FOIL of another band (sort of like the concept of mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive within finite math) would be preferable to what could be seen as the default mode of replication and larceny.

According to Wikipedia, The White Stripes were formed in 1997 in Detroit, Michigan and The Black Keys in 2001 in Akron, Ohio, hence, for you sports buffs, setting up what would seemingly play as a great rivalry in the spirit of the Wolverines and the Buckeyes. Some of the differences, of course, are probably accidental — The Black Keys couldn’t get signed to a major label at first and in fact had to look all the way down to Mississippi (though to probe the Delta for an employer on the part of them seems certainly proper) for Fat Possum Records as a source of livelihood. 

Ironically, though, it’s The Black Keys, the indie band, that makes a greater showing in production, in the case, in particular, of Rubber Factory, the best album to ever come from the holistic sum of this two-band musical platoon. The guitar right away on “When the Lights Go out” is textural and liquid, the drums miked up extra and to a booming, transcendent result within the mix. The White Stripes, on the other hand, aren’t so much not overproduced as they are just not produced at all. I mean, with the sole exception of Icky Thump (2007) [1], you could take away all of the production elements from any White Stripes LP and the music would remain essentially the exact same. Granted, much of this has to do with the pungent impetus on the part of these bands to strip down as a reaction to the grandiose, overdone mainstream rock of the time (again, another vital statement that’s inherently a reaction to something prior, rather than being some sort of objective, cosmogonical big bang of certified greatness, or whatever). The guitar in “10 A.M. Automatic” sounds like a lawn mower, 10 parts removed from the primitive interface of the garage-y Stratocaster miked up guilelessly and fed plainly into the sound board. 

And The Black Keys made a classic album in Rubber Factory, an accomplishment which, when you throw in pitfalls like consistency, digestibility and musical variety, The White Stripes did to a tenuous extent at best. In fact, Jack White, a macho alpha male prone to “waxing poetic” in real life and asserting that “There is no true love” in the unsettling, uncomfortable track “The Union Forever,” seems like an individual prone to making messes and then attempting to clean up after himself by way of other messes. A prime example of this would be the albeit glorious and jarring “Ball and Biscuit” and its extreme sacreligeous rhetoric, with sexuality, of “It’s a fact that I’m the seventh son” [2], which he did and then I think was so guilty about that he went and lunged at spiritual recompense with the blatantly repentent Get behind Me Satan [3]. It seems to have been, anyway, as an overall project, White’s ambition to be pure, or “white,” as his band name would suggest [4], whereas maybe it was The Black Keys’ ready admission of their own spiritually askance cosmos and human imperfections, again implicit within the name, that helped them truly come to themselves and become the blues rock duo that made the best studio album of all time within that style. 

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[1] There’s a great episode of Gear Club Podcast with Joe Chiccarelli on his production strategies on Icky Thump: he basically said, “That’s pretty good, but what if we made it sound all loud and crazy?”

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[2] I don’t know the Bible too well but I think that’s a reference to Abraham and his seven sons. 

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[3] Of course, he seems to have lost interest in that endeavor pretty quick as even that album contains the lines “Let’s do it / Let’s get on the plane and just do it / Like the birds and the bees and get to it”. 

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[4] In all fairness though Get behind Me Satan has one titan of a closeur, the piano/vox number “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).”

41 thoughts on ““Is it Possible that The Black Keys Were Conceived Deliberately as an Answer to The White Stripes?”

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