The Black Keys
El Camino

Though I can’t pinpoint exactly when my interest in The Black Keys waned (sometime between Magic Potion and the Zales commercials), I guess I’ve still been surprised by their ubiquity and popularity as of late. It seems like just yesterday that I was previewing their first appearance in Columbus (an instore at Used Kids Records) with a review of their debut, The Big Come Up. Who knew they’d be winning Grammys and selling out Madison Square Garden less than 10 years later?

During that time period, guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have also left their hometown of Akron (for Nashville and New York, respectively), created solo records and side projects, and still managed to summon the creativity to release a new record every year or two. Following the accolades bestowed upon its predecessor, Brothers (the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album), El Camino has the potential to be the band’s greatest success.

Working, as they did with Brothers, with Danger Mouse in the role of producer, El Camino is a chunky album filled with the kind of big riffs, big beats and big hooks that make for big records. While the band has consistently been likened to other two-pieces with a sweet-spot for the blues, El Camino is larger than such comparisons. No, this is a record destined for the same realm as those by the likes of Billy Squier and ZZ Top (not that they don’t also love the blues). I mean, check the pulse of cuts like “Nova Baby” and “Hell of a Season.” The Black Keys have learned to move with a snap in their step, and the result is some of the most exciting music of their career. Sure, I’ve still got a fondness for the grittiness of the band’s first records, but there’s no denying El Camino’s appeal, no matter how universal it may be.
Stephen Slaybaugh

The Dreamer, The Believer
Warner Bros.

When I reviewed Common’s last album, Universal Mind Control, for The Agit Reader, I had to quote the C-O himself, writing “I’d rather listen to silence than you holla.” Face it, that shit was weaker than Street Kings. So, after a terrible album and a mediocre detour into a movie career, there’s really only one way that Common could follow it up, right? “Mea culpa,” he says, “mea maxima culpa,” through 12 tracks that sound straight out of the “1-9-9-9.” What’s refreshing, though, is how well it all actually comes off.

Common raps to inspire, raps about the Chi-town streets, and raps better than he has in years. The break from action clearly helped him out. He must’ve been saving up his best rhymes for this release. Yes, he’s clearly trying to get back to his core audience. Maya Angelou intros the first track, Nas is on the second, John Legend pops up later on, and Common’s dad, Lonnie “Pops” Lynn, is back where he belongs, closing out the album just like old days. But in case all those retro moves weren’t enough for you, Common has made the bold move of bringing back producer No ID, who molded Com’s first three albums, including the underground classic Resurrection. Despite the 15 years since their last collaboration, No ID doesn’t miss a step and turns in some really incredible work. It doesn’t sound dated, but rather classic, both fresh and fresh. He’s found just the right sound for Common’s flow, and highlights the MC’s voice really well throughout the album. All of which makes sense, since this guy made the beats with which Common forged his true school identity 20 years ago. If you were a fan of that guy—and I sure was—you’ll be pleased to know he’s back and maintaining once again.
Matt Slaybaugh

Guided By Voices
Let’s Go Eat the Factory
GBV Inc.

While Robert Pollard and his band of merry men soldiered on under the Guided By Voices banner well into the 21st century, for many fans (myself included), it was the line-up that emerged in the early ’90s after years of toiling in Dayton in obscurity that has always remained emblematic of GBV at their best. It was this seemingly unlikely ragtag bunch—Pollard with guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell—who created GBV classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes and who showed the world that all that was needed to make a musical masterpiece was a four-track cassette recorder and a case of beer.

When Pollard announced in 2010 that he was getting this “classic” line-up back together to play live, it was a great surprise—even in this age of the indie rock band reunion. That the band ended up recording together is just as astounding. While Pollard told us last month that there are already more records in the can, the first new record by this group in 15 years comes with Let’s Go Eat the Factory. While of course one would hope for a record on par with those from GBV’s prime, it’s hard to have any real expectations as one of the group’s charms was the erratic nature of their recordings. In that sense, Factory stays true to form. But it lacks the obvious pop songs of its predecessors, though its first single, “The Unsinkable Fats Domino,” is a chugging nugget in the vein of “Motor Away.” Elsewhere GBV’s output is slanted and unpredictable, changing from the baroque stylings of “Hang Mr. Kite” to the willfully disjointed and obtuse “The Big Hat and Toy Show” in a matter of minutes. It’s hard to get a good grip on Factory as it seems to be in constant flux. Still, we may be calling it a classic too 10 years from now.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “The Unsinkable Fats Domino”

Amy Winehouse
Lioness: Hidden Treasures
Universal Republic

In so many ways, Amy Winehouse was probably one of the most unlikely candidates for worldwide superstardom. After all, reinterpretations of classic soul have long been a fairly common occurrence on the British charts, while America has generally been less than receptive to such throwback sounds on its radiowaves. But there was something about Winehouse that cut through and stuck. Maybe it was the classic girl-group visage and beehive or maybe it was the cheekily defiant attitude. Perhaps it was the shrugged-off problems with alcohol that gave a constant sense of danger. Ultimately, though, it was the music that struck the hardest. Right under the surface of cheery sing-alongs were tales of deep heartbreak and struggle sung in a voice that seemed to channel a spirit older than her 24 years. But as unlikely as her rise was, her passing in July seemed grimly easy to predict. It was made more poignant by the fact that she was freshly out of rehab and working on material for her next record. While there’s no consistent word on how much was completed, some of what could have been has been revealed with the release of Lioness: Hidden Treasures.

For an artist with such a brief career, Winehouse actually has a glut of B-sides, remixes and live performances floating around in the digital ether. So the challenge was how to make Lioness more than a quickly assembled cash-grab. The end result is a collection of alternate takes, covers and unreleased new songs assembled by Winehouse’s primary producers, Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. There may be some grumbling that the digging didn’t go deep enough, but for most this record will be a revelation. For those who didn’t hear Frank, her debut, there might be some surprise at the “Girl From Ipanema” and hearing the jazzy scatting of Winehouse’s early work. While musically many of the unreleased new songs continue on the same doo-wop sonic path as Back in Black, tracks like “Half Time” also reveal the artist beginning to meld jazz and R&B. As for the alternate takes, they’re more than just slightly different versions. In the case of “Wake Up Alone,” which is built around Winehouse’s acoustic guitar, it almost seems like a brand new song. The only slight misstep is the inclusion of a cover of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You.” While it hits all of the emotional buttons, vocally it’s a marble-mouthed mess. Yet in a way it almost sums up Winehouse: at times messy, but strong, and equally fierce and vulnerable.
Dorian S. Ham

Heavy Times

Given how erratic the Hozac release schedule has become over the years, it’s remarkable that the label still manages to mine a distinctive sound from the fertile scene of its Chicago home. Heavy Times are emblematic of the Midwestern punk experience. Inspired by cheap rent, dive bars, hard winters and quotidian tales, Jacker, the band’s sophomore record, exhibits all the traits of guys who have been doing this since the ’90s and have refused to leave the basement in the interim. Maybe it doesn’t go back that far, but over its 23-minute blitz, Heavy Times’ sound reflects the point where punks bypassed grunge for albums by Jawbreaker, Rocket from the Crypt and the Murder City Devils that thrived on melody and gruff textures. It’s certainly not a fashionable look in 2012, but Heavy Times inject enough modernity to these dry dystopian anthems to warrant some need to resurrect this Wipers-indebted pub rock.

Among the drab shades of black and gray that Heavy Times riff through on Jacker there are frequent glimmers of hope, a brighter future, and a reason to keep listening. The combination of “Skull Hair” and “Memory Dump,” in particular, proves that more than just possessing some chops, the quartet knows its way around a good hook, and that this should be the focus and not a diversion from their knuckle-scraping norm. Occasionally, as on “Motionless Drift” or “Erase the Sun” a Pixies-esque guitar line will snake out of the fog and provide some color, or they’ll turn down the bombast and evolve into a Rock*A*Teens-type stumble. But then again, the unforgiving gusts from a frozen lake have toughened them to no end, so Heavy Times will likely maintain the rough exterior, the workingman’s ethic, and the efficacy of classic Chicago punk. Asking them to soften up is likely wishful thinking.
Kevin J. Elliott