The Black Keys – The Big Come Up

The Big Come Up (2002)

B+

1. Busted 2. Do The Rump 3. I’ll Be Your Man 4. Countdown 5. The Breaks 6. Run Me Down 7. Leavin’ Trunk 8. Heavy Soul 9. She Said, She Said 10. Them Eyes 11. Yearnin’ 12. Brooklyn Bound 13. 240 Years Before Your Time

 

As Exile On Main St. has more than proved, a basement is a great place to make a rock ‘n roll record. And lemme tell ya, The Big Come Up sounds just like the basement from whence it came. Or at least what I imagine Patrick Carney’s basement to look like… you know, several dusty boxes of immaculately sorted comic books pushed off to one side to make room for the drum kit and a stack of old, out of print blues records on top of Dan’s humming vintage tube amp, which sits underneath a Howlin’ Wolf poster, its watchful eye constantly commanding Dan and Pat to Play The Blues.

And no doubt, the Keys absolutely stick to their uber lo-fi, basement blues guns as hard as they can here, for better or worse. I mean, can it really be seen as a positive that the drums mostly sound like tin cans? Or that I can’t with a good conscience vouch for the originality of at least half these riffs? Can there really be no middle ground between this and Madonna? Does a band really sell out the minute they start recording with anything other than a single broken Shure mic? It would seem so for a number of rock fans who live for the stripped down sound and don’t necessarily realize that there’s more to grit and feeling in music than poorly playing a nasty distorted guitar in a grimey basement with a complete lack of any professional production values.

Fortunately, the Keys have got those intangibles in spades, whether they’re being produced by Danger Mouse or recording an album on a cheap 8-track tape recorder for fun without a record contract, which is exactly how they made The Big Come Up. How else would they manage to be the one squillionth band of white boys to play electric blooze and somehow stand out from the pack at as late a date as 2002? It’s gotta be that gloriously skuzzy guitar work, because these boys ain’t exactly writing songs we’ve never heard before. That’s the folk tradition for you. The one that allows an old R.L. Burnside tune to be regurgitated musically verbatim with different lyrics and be called a “new” song, whereas copying more than a note of any given Pink Floyd song is a federal goddamn offense.

Nah, I think “Busted” is actually credited, and even if it weren’t, I’d forgive ‘em, seeing as one, they’d hardly be the first, and two, it’s an absolutely vicious slide on this workout – a raw, red hot little jam that miraculously sounds like it hasn’t been done before even when it very clearly has. I don’t know how Dan got that sound before he played any shows—or even played much of anywhere outside his bedroom—but all I know is I’ve been playing guitar in my bedroom for years and I can’t even dream of finding that tone.

And though he barely, if at all, changes it up over the course of the album, it doesn’t wear, since he’s mostly just playing 2 and a half minute blasts of garagey goodness and the album is over in half an hour anyway. And even though bands brag all the time about their “minimal overdubs” (yeah, I’m sure those 12 glockenspiel tracks just played themselves live in the studio!), this album really has virtually no overdubs or anything remotely extraneous – this is budgeted all the way. You’ll hear a simple pedal effect on the intro to “Them Eyes,” an extra guitar in one or two places, and a droney organ thing in the background of a couple of songs, and that’s about it (oh, and a couple of brief hip hop-like sample interludes that will probably give any baby boomer listeners a heart attack, but just ignore those. They were put there to trick you. If you really love the blues you’ll just pretend they don’t exist and keep shaking your fist at those stupid rotten kids with their crap music and skateboards. Bastards). And that minimalism sounds just fine, whether on blues covers (Junior Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump,” Muddy’s “Run Me Down”) or originals for which they rip off common blues riffs (“Countdown,” “The Breaks”). They even do a neat approximation of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” (always one of my favorite Beatles songs), the first in their steady stable of classic rock covers which proves they are well aware of their forefathers in the whole “white guys playing black music” tradition.

And there are definitely some nascent pop tendencies lurking beneath the surface, though it can be hard to tell since, you know, everything pretty much sounds the same. Like “Yearnin’” which sounds like a fast throwaway, early Stones-aping track that Buffalo Springfield or the Doors or someone would do at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in 1966, just without any chintzy organ or bad redneck harmonies and thus better. Likewise, the hard-driving “Heavy Soul” and the breezy “I’ll Be Your Man,” which is apparently the current theme song for some HBO show about vampire prostitute mob bosses, are two definite highlights, and were an early indication that things would get bigger and better and move beyond blues hero worship.



One Comment

  1. Ben wrote:

    I have trouble making out certain songs here, because every song on this album sounds exactly the same. Even “She said she said” fits right in. If i hadn’t heard the beatles version hundreds of times before, I wouldn’t have noticed it. I do like “Busted”, “Run me down” and “Heavy soul”, but there’s nothing really noteworthy there.