The Black Keys Are No Longer Fun Hangs on 'Ohio Players'

BY Matthew TeklemariamPublished Apr 4, 2024


The Black Keys, at the very least, have always been a good hang. Former darlings of the second wave of garage rock revivalists, the two-man group were formed after no one else bothered to show up to their audition. If their inauspicious basement origins weren't enough to endear, they mowed lawns to fund tour costs, all to sound like Arthur Crudup on the trip of a lifetime for the fervent few who kept them afloat.

But that outlaw disposition and sawed-off quality were both blessings and curses, respectively. Somewhere about their fifth album, they got their amp aux ports "tightened up," so to speak, for a leaner sound and larger profit margins. The laser sights of sanctimonious rockists eager to wail "J'ACCUSE!" at the mere idea of making a living had always been right between their eyes, anyway. Yet that was some 20 years ago, and still their maligned reputation is at the forefront. Moreover, it's eclipsed the actual music.

Through all their iterations, that laid-back, whiskey-soaked wobble has permeated everything they've done, even the ill-conceived psychedelic excursion (obligatory for all rock 'n' roll troupes). That dogged reliability has been their top hallmark. On 'Let's Rock' they got back to basics, and on blues tribute Delta Kreem they got downright atavistic. But even the latter's minor-epic take on John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" couldn't match the white-boy-blues thrills of say, the Doors. Are they totally out of ideas? Perhaps, which is why on 12th full-length Ohio Players, they get by with a little help from a friend — or 40.

Accompanied by playfully self-reflexive marketing and a laundry list of collaborators (Noel Gallagher, Beck, Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia), it's about damn time for the Black Keys to earn their keep in the public consciousness and re-emerge triumphant. Or not. Ohio Players is ultimately betrayed by, against all odds, its ambition, and the Black Keys' misguided notion that wild syncretism can save their brand and push it beyond its comfortable confines.

Opening track "This Is Nowhere" is their worst start in recent memory, an aptly named, nebulous dirge that heralds their new direction, whatever it is. It's pop rock sludge and void of identity, a sing-along in concept only. Sanded away are any semblance of edge that even 2022's Dropout Boogie recalled; the Black Keys are riding more street-legal than ever. Beck's perky influence is felt throughout, co-writing half the tracks and playing multiple instruments throughout. What's most disappointing here is the vague promise of some genuine funk, given the album title's allusion to the soul royalty group of the same name. Ohio Players skews closer to mid-career Maroon 5 than "Funky Worm" or anything on Beck's excellent Midnite Vultures.

"Don't Let Me Go" is just like a Beck B-side, full of sound and fury and half-baked before something else caught his attention. Lead single "Beautiful People (Stay High)" is the exact kind of product the Keys' biggest detractors will savour: too stupid to be blithe and already fading in memory. A lot of the tracks here ("On the Game," "Only Love") are overwrought, with too many disparate elements collaged together. Synth walls clash with digitized horns and boom bap crap while the Keys struggle to find a place to be heard among the mess.

The presumed "urban" influence is clumsily presented in two rap codas, to great comedic effect. On tracks "Candy and Her Friends" featuring Lil Noid and "Paper Crown" featuring Juicy J, the Black Keys vie for the street cred they lost with their first licensing deal. It's not even that their verses are bad, per se. In fact, "Paper Crown" is a decent attempt at emulating the G-funk sound historically built on Ohio Players and Parliament samples. It just comes off bizarro when the lyrics — "Go on, bounce dat ass / Go on, bounce dat ass, mm-hmm" — precede an Auerbach mini-solo.

There's some Stax-like stomp in "You'll Pay" (the album's best track), with the Wurlitzer piano and Hammond organ as effective holy evocations. Naturally, they sound most comfortable with Booker T. Jones cover "I Forgot to Be Your Lover," and they do it with a twinkle in their eye and in the sound. The rest of the tracks can be safely flouted; only the Western twang of "Read Em and Weep" truly recalls those outlaw glory days of yore.

The winking of Dropout Boogie is totally gone and the sweat on their brow wiped clean. There are admittedly some palatable textures here, an inevitability given the roster of talent, but so much of it is obfuscated in genre confusion and poor arrangements. Oftentimes, it's just too lofty for a band that, even during the lysergic episodes, had always stayed grounded enough to be tangible. Congruity is a problem here, not just within the scope of the album, but within their whole discography.

Applauding growth of an act is one thing, but this is at best a stumbling, lateral move. Things have been rearranged, but the song remains the same and it's beginning to grate — any more intrepidness from the Black Keys is to be feared. It's the worst kind of overstimulation, stemming from too many cooks in the kitchen, or perhaps too many keys in the bathroom stall. I'm not sure I can keep hanging with these guys anymore.


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