And to think, The Black Keys came up kicking out scuzzy lo-fi garage-blues tunes in the drummer’s basement in Akron, Ohio. The duo’s humble beginnings, and that elemental garage-blues sound, are distant blips in the rearview mirror by now: The Black Keys’s musical palette has expanded considerably as they’ve grown into one of the biggest rock bands around since releasing their first album in 2002. Starting with Attack and Release in 2008, they got funkier and a little weirder (see “Everlasting Light” from 2010’s Brothers, with its stiff beat, muddy guitar and falsetto vocals). Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney even took a pronounced turn toward psychedelia on 2014’s Turn Blue, which had a heavy emphasis on keyboards.
They strip away all that extra stuff on Let’s Rock and put the focus back on guitar and drums. Apart from some backing vocals, Auerbach and Carney played everything on Let’s Rock, and produced it, too—the first time in a decade that they’ve made an album without production help from Danger Mouse. Given his resumé (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Danger Doom), it’s not hard to see how Danger Mouse helped The Black Keys shape their sound on the four albums they made with him. But they didn’t really need him for this one. There’s nothing particularly complicated or out-there about Let’s Rock: it’s a rock ’n’ roll record, stuffed full of guitar riffs.
That’s not to say it’s a return to their garage-rock days. Back then, Auerbach and Carney pretty much did one thing, and they did it well. Let’s Rock is more like a sampler of the other stuff they can do, particularly Auerbach. He excels at volcanic sounds on a handful of these 12 new songs, dialing in an earth-shaking, anthemic riff over a stomping beat on opener “Shine a Little Light,” and then providing his own musical counterpoint by playing a scabrous, grit-covered lick over the top of the riff. Auerbach goes for sultry and slow-burning on the measured “Walk Across the Water,” holding himself a little bit in check as he plays a riff saturated in superheated fuzz, as though his amplifier is turned all the way up and starting to give off smoke. “Lo/Hi” is all about the groove: Carney plays a lean, swift beat tucked way back in the pocket while Auerbach lays down layers of guitar that pop and snap as he builds to a squealing, electric-drill solo.
Auerbach has never been a flashy vocalist, and he stays in his comfort zone here, singing in the warm, slightly rumpled tones that have carried Black Keys songs for 17 years now. Adding Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson on backing vocals throughout Let’s Rock adds a soulful new dimension, though, and the way they sing in unison with Auerbach, echo him or add wordless background vocals gives the songs a richer texture, and greater depth. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the lyrics on Let’s Rock, but The Black Keys have never been poets. They’re rockers with a thing for sturdy songs and primal riffs, and that’s exactly what Let’s Rock delivers.
If you’re looking for experiments with song structure or eclectic instrumentation, this probably isn’t the album for you. If you want something you can crank up at backyard barbecues or in the car with the windows down, well, The Black Keys have two words for you, and they’re in the album title.