Album reviews: Thickfreakness (by The Black Keys); World Without Tears (by Lucinda Williams)
The Black Keys (Fat Possum)
Anybody who wondered what the Black Keys would do to follow up their critically acclaimed debut, “The Big Come Up,” won’t have to wait long for an answer.
A slow, reassuring slide up electrified guitar strings opens the title track of “Thickfreakness” and rings in another collection of grungy, greasy tunes from the twentysomething Akron, Ohio, duo.
Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are in no hurry to try a new direction. Rather than mix it up, the Keys return with another blues/rock stew of fuzzy guitar, juke-joint shouts and a thudding backbeat.
The band again touts its “medium-fidelity” recording process on “Thickfreakness.” The name implies cheesiness, but it gives the Keys more of a timeless sound than anything, making them a perfect fit on their new label, which also distributes Mississippi blues stalwarts R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and Fred McDowell. It ain’t broke, and the Keys ain’t fixing it.
The raw, hard-edged blues sound is part of the charm. Whether you’re a blues purist or a casual fan, “Thickfreakness” is hard to resist. Carney goes for broke behind the kit on just about every tune, and Auerbach is adept at the range of the Keys’ influences, from constant-bass fingerpicking to slide guitar to primitive rock and roll.
In 38 minutes, “Thickfreakness” takes you from the Mississippi Delta through the birth of rock and roll to the modern day and back again. It’s as heavy as a greasy-spoon burger in the pit of your stomach.
Blues is the basis, but there’s variety, too. “Hard Row” echoes parts of Cream’s “White Room.” “Set You Free” sounds like a ‘60s rocker.
The duo also pays tribute to the late Kimbrough with a cover of his “Everywhere I Go.” The other cover is a version of “Have Love, Will Travel,” written by Richard Berry (“Louie, Louie”). From the catchy opening riff, don’t be surprised if your head starts bobbing and your toe starts tapping as the Keys dare you to not crank your stereo.
Their promotional material explains it like this: “The Black Keys are a broke-down blues-punk duo who holler fuzzed-out tunes about pain, suffering and dancing. You WILL get down.”
Now there’s truth in advertising.
World Without Tears
Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway)
Lucinda Williams, one of America’s most revered songwriters, is back with just her seventh album in a recording career stretching back to 1979 — but considering that her last effort was 2001’s “Essence,” fans can only hope that this signals a trend of increased productivity.
Williams’ storied meticulousness is one reason for the slow pace, and it’s almost always reflected in the songcraft. She won a Grammy for Contemporary Folk Album in 1998 for “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” “World Without Tears” feels polished from the start, as it was recorded essentially live in the studio by Williams’ road band. The arrangements are accented by shimmering tremolo from Doug Pettibone’s electric guitar, and often hang in the air like the oppressive heat of a sultry Southern afternoon — though it might be the baggage weighing them down.
Williams suffers for her art, and the listener will have to suffer with her to appreciate “World Without Tears.” The majority of the songs cut close to the bone, and are addressed to the other half of a failed relationship. The lyrics are intensely personal, reflecting on the power — good and bad — of love from in the gutter. By the time you get to the third song, “Ventura,” Williams invites a physical reaction when she sings “Lean over the toilet bowl/And throw up my confession/Cleanse my soul/of this hidden obsession.” Poetic, but as fascinating and difficult to face as a car wreck. Williams walks a fine line between summoning sympathy and having the listener wishing for her to get over it already.
That’s not to say that the entire disc is a meditation on heartache. Williams has said that “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” was inspired by Paul Westerberg, and she nails the vibe of the ex-Replacements frontman.
Williams is even willing to take a few chances. “Sweet Side” is a shot of literate rap admonishing a lover. “American Dream” straddles rap and spoken word and speaks to the plight of, among others, Vietnam vets and American Indians.
The angry, bluesy “Atonement” feels like a misstep, if only because Williams’ shift to snarling doesn’t seem to suit her. Even so, the song hits its mark as an angry criticism of organized religion.
Despite the attempt at variety, “World Without Tears” is a disc whose broken heart keeps beating, while dwelling on the one that got away. The title track, which gives a nod to ‘60s pop and soul, asks, “If we lived in a world without tears/how would misery know/which back door to walk through?” This album is art, but don’t expect a watercolor of daisies.
Williams works in the expansive gray area known as alt-country. Even if she were country, these songs wouldn’t stand up to the old country-song joke. They’re so sad at times that even if you play them backwards, your lover isn’t coming back.