Look at what ten years have done to The Black Keys. The two-man blues of thickfreakness, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s second album, sounds like it was scraped off of a rusted flatbed, a product of The White Stripes’ uglier cousin. Jack and Meg released Elephant that year, and had Loretta Lynn opening their shows before thousands of people. That year, I dropped off my roommate at Voodoo Fest with a command to call me when they played “There’s No Home For You Here”; several months later, I’d catch Auerbach and Carney in the small room at Twiropa, with the place at 2/3 capacity. They did their cover of “She Said, She Said,” and in that concrete box, it sounded like Auerbach was peeling that opening riff off of the wall. The last time they played New Orleans, it was at an outdoor stage on the riverfront at an official Final Four event called The Big Dance. Blondie opened.
Even more impressive is the rise of Fat Possum, the Oxford, MS, label that released thickfreakness and that was at the time better known for its expertly curated Delta blues reissues. Now they count New York’s urbane Walkmen, Boise bedroom-popster Youth Lagoon, and lo-fi glammers Smith Westerns among their roster; on Tuesday, they’ll put out the much-anticipated solo debut of Girls’ Christopher Owens. The Keys, meanwhile, have moved over to Nonesuch, home of Randy Newman, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Dr. John, whose 2012 release Locked Down was produced by none other than Dan Auerbach.
In 2003, though, all of that was a ways off. And while thickfreakness does carry the seed that would bloom the band’s eventual success, here it’s still buried below layer after layer of soil, silt, and mud. It seems rhetorical at this point to talk about The Black Keys in terms of earthy physicality, and to use these particular swampy words more closely associated with the Lower Mississippi than with Rust Belt Ohio. Those words barely mean anything anymore, especially given the proliferation of the band’s sound; it’s maybe easier, and just as instructive, to say that they sound like The Black Keys, and that thickfreakness is them at their most primitive, with Auerbach flubbing notes here and there, and Carney keeping things a touch too stiff. Auerbach’s a good guitarist, but, at least here, he’s no Jack White. The White Stripes pushed through the blues towards ecstasy, using the chronological dissonance that comes with hearing Delta blues in the 21st Century to goose their way into a whorl of noise. For The White Stripes, the blues were a landmine meant to send you skyward. Auerbach and Carney, at least on thickfreakness, aren’t interested in where the blues can lead, but in how hard times can still be caught in tangled lines of slide guitar.
Which isn’t to say that thickfreakness is some kind of bummer. It’s humble, and contained, and it cruises by with the conviction that simple words are sufficient for the stories it wants to tell. “Thickfreakness” opens the album with a roar that threatens to cruise away at highway speed, but quickly settles into a rutty groove before Auerbach, his voice flecked with distortion, moans some unintelligible lament. Carney’s bashing and Auerbach’s leads conjure a dense-enough humidity throughout the album, but that hollow, mushmouthed voice gives it its character. I’m never quite sure what Auerbach is singing at any given moment, but he does so with such deep intent that I’m afraid to look it up, or even to pay too close of attention, lest I be disappointed.
And so imprecision is the album’s greatest virtue. Even when it explodes, as it does in the opening moments of “Set You Free,” it jerks down into its grooves and minds its place. The notes are never too precise, buried as they are under distortion and reverb, and Auerbach’s playing, while articulate, speaks with an accent. With the exception of “Set You Free,” which was “recorded 50%” at a separate studio, all of thickfreakness was recorded and produced in a single day, pasted together by Carney’s production. Its thrills aren’t cheap, but they are thrifty.