Listen to this track by Akron Ohio blues-rock twosome The Black Keys. It’s “Tighten Up”, a single as taken from their 2010 album Brothers.
The single was twinned with another hit in “Howlin’ For You”, hearkening back to the days of the double A-side. Both songs evoke the spirit of one of the band’s greatest influences, that being Howlin’ Wolf. Even the album design mirrored Wolf’s 1969 album The Howlin’ Wolf Album on which the self-referential words “This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”. Even if that statement about his view of his own record was true, it showed that the blues was changing by the latter years of Wolf’s career, mixing with rock music and psychedelia.
Even if this song hearkens back to what Wolf helped to establish – echoey and subterranean blues that is coloured with an edge of desperation and menace – it also demonstrates that the form is not stagnant by the 21st century, either. It still had plenty of space to grow, with The Black Keys certainly playing their part to get the music back on mainstream radio and on video screens too. With this, another aspect comes to the fore; that this is not mere musical curation of sounds from days gone by. It’s a part of a living tradition that also has a place in the pop charts.
“Tighten Up” was their breakthrough into the mainstream, and this is their highest charting single to date. Even the video did well, scoring an MTV award (apparently still caring about videos by 2010-11 …) for “Breakthrough video”, and here in Canada on Muchmusic for International Video of the Year. Clearly, it made a connection with a whole new generation of fans when it came to blues-based music. They made this song sound both vital and new, as well as rooted in a solid musical tradition at the same time.
I think this is because of a few of factors, beyond the obvious skills that singer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bring to the table in terms of songwriting, musicianship, and production. One is how malleable and adaptive the blues is as a musical template for them to follow. Another is its seemingly primal nature. There’s just something about those odd and almost sexually attractive musical scales that are associated with the blues that humanity cannot resist. You can find it in Nina Simone’s music. You can find it in Black Sabbath’s. It’s appeal ranges from Ma Rainy to Metallica. No matter what textures or styles you lay on top of it, that visceral tingle in the nether-regions seems to be undeniable.
Along with the clear evocation of the late bluesman in its sister-single “Howlin’ For You”, “Tighten Up” also sounds like a song Howlin’ Wolf could have written and performed, even though there is no attempt here to point it out to listeners in any overt way. It simply sounds as though it’s a part of a pantheon of tunes that are imbued with the same spirit of Wolf’s tradition, standing tall with songs like “Backdoor Man”, “Little Red Rooster”, and “Spoonful”. Important to this idea is that it is not an imitation of a sound. I think this is because the song’s writers know enough about where the music comes from to not to simply present it as a musical waxwork. That’s the heart of their success.
Referencing the masters while making new music to appeal to a modern audience is an incredibly difficult balance to strike. How many poor blues-rock bands are there out there right now who ape the sound, but have gained no artistic traction or sense of creative identity to move beyond the confines of their influences? As Jimi Hendrix once said, “the blues is easy to play, but hard to feel”. This maybe why “blues-rock” has such firm associations with glossy beer commercials, like a sort of Budweiser-tinged answer to preservation hall trad jazz, only with harp-racks and shades in place of waistcoats and straw boater hats. Despite that, the blues has always transcended any one era or musical label in any case, not to be definitively encapsulated in any one milieu or uniform, but rather to be found in the very psyche of humanity even today in the 21st century.
Musical trends come and go. But what lies behind the music and what we want to get from it does not.
For more information about The Black Keys, have a peak at this mini-documentary about the band and what brought them together.
Otherwise, slide along to theblackkeys.com to keep up with new releases and shows.