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The Slow-Burn Success of The Black Keys, and Why Less Is More

The Black Keys, current poster children of the garage rock revival, are anything but an overnight success. Before their most recent two records, Brothers and El Camino, made them a household name, they spend the prior nine years plugging away as an indie band, building an underground following with their raw, bluesy sound and gaining extra exposure through song placements. And now? Good luck getting a ticket to their shows.

While theirs is a story coveted by indie bands everywhere, I don’t think the slow-burn success of The Black Keys is simply because their sound has grown on us over the years. When people hear The Black Keys, they usually become fans, so I don’t think they are an acquired taste. Rather, I think their long journey to the top has been more about the process of getting their sound heard by more people—and once they hit a certain threshold, their popularity snowballed.

So for me, the question really is, what is it about their sound that so appeals to us? This is a band that shows an obvious affinity for old-school blues and lo-fi distortion, and an apparent disdain for the high-tech polish and uber-production of modern pop-rock. And yet, The Black Keys are now set to surpass now-defunct fellow garage-rockers White Stripes in overall popularity. What is it about this less-is-more approach that makes us want to buy their records and go to their shows?

This is speculation, of course, but I think there are a variety of factors that play into it. Let me run a few things by you here:


  1. Their music is accessible. There’s something about the raw, undoctored distorted guitars and the subtle rhythmic inconsistencies that causes The Black Keys to sound—well—human to us. It’s a sound that makes people want to listen in, and makes guitar players want to try their hand at the song. (It’s harder to get that vibe from heavy synths and drum loops.)
  2. Their sound is soulful and expressive. The blues sound has tapped an emotional pool in people for decades, and The Black Keys have simply made that vibe more current. There’s a level of emotion that can be expressed in the nuances of their sound that can’t be duplicated in over-produced pop and rock.
  3. Catchy songs. This could be the case for any band, but if you have a great sound and no great songs, your band will fizzle. The Black Keys have memorable songs that people like to sing and/or dance to.


But beyond these things, perhaps the most notable thing about The Black Keys’ less-is-more approach to rock is this: we still love to hear good talent. By creating a more sparse, less-produced atmosphere, it leaves room for these guys to actually play. Yeah, extravagant stage productions and light shows can entertain a crowd, but the fact is we still get a real kick out of someone playing the crap out of an instrument. With The Black Keys understated approach to their sound, you can actually hear what they are doing. You can hear that they are a great band that plays great rock and roll.

And perhaps that’s the simple key to the slow-burn success of The Black Keys: they have forged a sound that allows them to express themselves well, and lets people hear them for the great rock band that they are. That, coupled with consistence, perseverance, and an uncompromising approach to their sound, has ultimately gained them the success they enjoy today.

However they got here—I for one am glad to have them around.

 (Photo credit: Cesar Perdomo/Flickr)

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About the Author


Tim Ferrar's interest in pop and rock started as a child, listening to Top-40 radio for hours on end while playing air guitar in his bedroom. Eventually air guitar led to electric guitar, and Tim began playing in bands and writing his own songs. With an admitted weakness for "a great hook or a great guitar riff," Tim's musical tastes are broad and varied, ranging from Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga on the pop side to Bon Jovi and Foo Fighters on the rock side- making him the ideal guy to cover our Rock and Pop categories. By day, Tim is a mild-mannered accountant in Chicago. By night, he rocks out on electric guitar in a cover band in various clubs around town- much to the surprise of some of his clients.

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