The Black Keys

Chulahoma EP

(Fat Possum; 2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 19 May 2006

After successfully stealing the show on last year’s pleasant-enough Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, the Black Keys, as sort of a going-away present to Fat Possum, have now released the first proper EP of their career. Chulahoma, a collection of six Junior Kimbrough songs and one answering machine message, manages to both move the band in a new, albeit traditional direction and still keep Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s perfect record intact.

To explain this I refer here to what I have dubbed the “Purdom” hypothesis: not only are the Black Keys quite possible the most consistent and exemplary American rock band of the last five years, they are also operating on a complete reverse career track. The evidence speaks for itself: since 2002, The Black Keys have released three albums and one EP, each better than the last. Moreover, as they’ve progressed, the band has moved closer to its blues roots, abandoning the hip-hop samples and pop flourishes of The Big Come Up in favor of the sneeringly cool rock of Thickfreakness and the viciously sexy Rubber Factory. Now, having moved on to Kimbrough covers they’ve taken it even further; the logical extension of this for their forthcoming fourth LP is hard to conceive, though needless to say we here at CMG are excited.

Chulahoma is an extension of the band’s previous work in more than just concept. Auerbach and Carney genuinely sound reinvented here to fit the material, and man does it sound good. The whole EP is so dark that it’s hard to even catch a gasp of air for the first three tracks. Carney, never quite the player that Auerbach is, matches up better than ever here, hitting the stops and laying out some huge drum lines for his partner to wail over. Wail Auerbach most certainly does, getting more out of tone than substance, both with guitar and voice. The thickness of the guitar on “Keep Your Hands Off Her” is startling at first, but by the time you hit the quiet moan of “Have Mercy on Me,” the finest the EP has to offer, you really start to wonder why no one else is working this angle. Auerbach’s solo on the second half of that song puts most of the music released heretofore in 2006 to shame with its restrained beauty and gentle soul. “Work Me” comes in not far behind, sounding a bit closer to something off “Thickfreakness,” but with a sort of relaxed conviction that speaks volumes of the pair’s growth in the last few years.

The band does offer a brief reprieve with “Meet Me in the City,” all soft tones and reverb (reminiscent at times of their own gorgeous “The Lengths”), before diving back into the delta mud with “Nobody But You.” Auerbach’s guitar playing is becoming so expressive that you barely need the lyrics to express all the coldness and bluster wrapped up in the song. The band closes it out with the gorgeous “My Mind is Ramblin’,” the standout track that they used for Sunday Nights, and a brief, congratulatory message from Kimbrough’s widow.

Sludgy and thick, if Chulahoma is any indication of the direction the Keys are heading on album #4 then we’re in for a treat. The quality of the recording alone is startling in its clarity and depth, capturing all of the emotion that Auerbach can squeeze out of six strings and that mighty scream of his. Often overshadowed fellow blues-rockers and always a bit easy to overlook, Auerbach and Carney have managed to avoid the limelight for the last few years. Out on tour with Radiohead these days, and quite possibly just starting to come into their own, 2006 could well be the Black Keys’ big year. Chulahoma certainly kicks things off right.