Any Old Way You Choose It: Back to basics with The Black Keys, Titus Andronicus

lets rock

You can’t talk about the state of rock and roll without talking about The Black Keys– a band that bucks every trend, defies every natural law, and does it all with tricks they copped from vintage blues and garage playbooks. Over the last decade, no other guitar rock band has quite matched their bounty of commercial success and critical acclaim; poor Iceage doesn’t have the sales, while much-maligned Greta Van Fleet lags 5.4 points behind on the Pitchfork scale. There are now nine Black Keys albums in the world– a few of them excellent, all of them valuable– and though they vary slightly in terms of how rigidly they stick to the fundamentals, they’re all persuasive that rock’s most appealing when it’s at its most direct and unadorned. 

In a career modeled on a back-to-basics approach, “Let’s Rock” feels like the closest thing the Keys have offered to a reset; their return to recording after a five-year break jettisons the murky psychedelia of Turn Blue as well as the little pockets of glitter that bedazzled El Camino, instead ratifying the enduring pleasure of short-and-fast songs that wail and thump and spin off into dozens upon dozens of earworm guitar riffs, all of them comfortingly familiar and thrillingly off-the-cuff. Only on two of these dozen self-produced songs do Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney approach the four minute mark, and only on “Walk Across the Water” do you get anything that could rightly be called a slow jam; even there, Carney’s drum kit throws a few lumps into the floating disco-ball gait, ensuring some swing in its sway. It’s a particularly unfussy and unpretentious record from a duo that’s seldom let big concepts get in the way of their joyful ruckus, and as such it’s the most endlessly replayable Keys album in a while– a winsome gene splice of Rubber Factory’s chunky, blues-adjacent racket and Brothers’ ragged R&B. 

You could call it a throwback Black Keys record, but to do so ignores some subtle yet substantial leaps forward in their craft; much as they and we might prefer the illusion that these are just two dudes ripping it up in a repurposed Nashville office building, there are multi-layered harmonies and piles of overdubbed riffs hiding just below the crackle of first-take immediacy, adding depth and heft to some of the group’s cleanest writing yet. (Backup singers Ashley Wikcoxzon and Leisa Hans prove themselves mission-critical throughout.) There’s also something to be said for the genre elasticity Auerbach’s forged through his second career as a record producer, which helps explain how “Let’s Rock,” for all the meat-and-potatoes promises of its title, is really a covert exercise in low-key eclecticism; Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it a “fantasy jukebox,” as good a description as any for an album that moves so swiftly between different flavors of thundering mayhem. “Eagle Birds” is a haywired electric boogie; “Lo/Hi” is a sky-splitting baptism in crackling fuzz; “Sit Around and Miss You” is crinkled country; “Go” stretches a single-syllable vamp into a blast of sing-along power pop. 

Auerbach’s lyrics, always admirable in their concision, mostly hover over matters of love and loss; he’s not too proud to mope (“Sit Around and Miss You” is exactly the kind of song its title promises it’ll be), but just as often he declaims, spinning his lived experience into what sound like weird backwoods proverbs, universal truths expressed through a gnarled vernacular (“every little thing that you do is always gonna come back to you”; “if you wanna make it last forever, maybe get behind the mule”; “don’t nobody wanna be lonely, everybody oughta be loved sometimes”; “no one really knows where it goes from here/ but we all decompose and slowly disappear”). These lyrics aren’t flashy, but they’re honed with precision and effective as a result; perfect tidings from a band whose sweet spot is the intersection of careful craft and disorderly thrills.

They’re not the only band that’s ratifying the fundamentals. An Obelisk, new from Titus Andronicus, is loud, fast, succinct, and electric– all the things the group’s previous record, the divisive acoustic jamboree A Productive Cough, wasn’t. Call it course-correction if you like, though actually, An Obelisk was conceived and written before its predecessor, suggesting the band’s awareness that their hard rock bona fides might need prompt renewal. These 10 new songs fly by in 38 minutes; a leisurely sprawl by hardcore punk standards, but remarkably terse for a band whose stock in trade has always been conceptual epics. They brought in producer Bob Mould, fresh off his own bubbly Sunshine Rock, and he keeps things down and dirty: This is a record that takes all its cues from classic punk albums, the clack of drumsticks counting down choppy riffs and Patrick Stickles’ frantic and sour Joe Strummer slur, all of it captured with just the right levels of tinny, cheap fidelity. “On the Street” is just over a minute of dramatic thrash ‘n’ crash; “My Body and Me” is a little slower but just as crude in its pulverizing electric grind; even when the band really stretches out, as in “Hey Ma,” it’s to salute the big-hearted jubilance and ramshackle folk of The Pogues. An Obelisk bears witness to a deep, full-spectrum love of classic punk, but what makes the album affecting isn’t that it gets the sound right; it’s that it both affirms and critiques its primary texts, taking punk’s anti-authoritarian slant as a springboard for careful self-reflection. An early song called “(I Blame) Society” kicks against the pricks, but the more Stickles thinks on it, the more he wonders if he’s part of the solution or part of the problem. “The Lion Inside” suggests that the true asshole is the inner asshole, while “Tumult Around the World” wonders if one man’s problems amount to a hill of beans when there’s so much trouble to go around. It’s a record that rails against a world gone to ruin, but it takes punk’s street-fighting spirit a step further by throwing a few punches at the man in the mirror and his silent complicity.  It’s rock, rock criticism, and self-criticism all in one– and it’s proof that there are still plenty of big ideas you can conceal just below the din of pummeling drums and ragged guitars.

Breakdowns and Breakthroughs: Buddy & Julie Miller talk it out

breakdown on 20th ave south

During seasons of heartbreak, it’s just like the old song says: We all need somebody to lean on. But what happens when the person you lean on is also the one who did the heartbreaking? Bill Withers didn’t offer a contingency plan, but Buddy and Julie Miller have it covered on a new album called Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. The very title suggests that the 10 years elapsed since their last record haven’t exactly been idyllic, and the songs— many of them thrumming midnight blues, palpable with conflict and unease— offer confirmation. Several gingerly run a finger along domestic wounds still tender to the touch— hurt feelings, stony silences, resentments left on simmer just a little too long. And there beyond the windowsill, the world roars its violence and hums its indifference. It’s enough to make a person want to scream, but who will hear it, and who will care? The Millers voice those questions right from the jump: “In the night/ who hears the words coming out of your mouth?” Heartbreak comes sooner or later, these wise songs counsel– so who do you lean on? Who will receive your complaint, your confession, your psalm of lament? What are you doing to keep the lines of communication open?

It so happens that 20th Ave. South is the couple’s real-life Nashville mailing address, and while it’s generally judicious not to assume too much autobiographical intention from any songwriter, Buddy and Julie have been candid about some of the personal struggles that informed their return to recording. Maybe you know the backstory: For many years the husband-wife duo were among the most prolific and beloved power couples in the Americana scene, lauded both for their solo albums and the music they put out as a pair. (2001’s Buddy and Julie Miller is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.) When the cruel effects of fibromyalgia forced Julie to back away from public life, Buddy eased into a second career as producer for various luminaries, helming rewarding records by Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, and Solomon Burke; most commendable of all is Robert Plant’s ragged and lovable Band of Joy. But the couple’s musical collaborations dried up, and understandably, Julie felt left-out and adrift. As the Millers tell NPR’s Jewly Hight, it took a little time for Buddy to realize how much distance he’d allowed into their marriage, and for Julie to express how much she felt wounded. The very existence of a third Buddy and Julie record– heralded by fans as borderline miraculous when it was announced earlier this year– attest that their lines of communication ultimately led to a reconciliation, though the songs suggest that it’s all an ongoing process. “Everything is your fault in the whole wide world,” Julie deadpans in one song; perhaps it’s a hyperbolic reenactment of a lovers’ spat, but then again, many a truth is spoken in jest. More assuring is the riotous “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the closest this record comes to the playful energy of classics like “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.” “You’re gonna love me, even when you think you don’t,” Julie smiles, affirming what every long-married couple knows: that love is as much about action as it is emotion, and on any given day may have little to do with how you’re feeling.

There’s a strange weather bottled here– the particular air of a couple who have hurt and healed together, and who’ve been reminded that sustaining a marriage requires daily engagement. Even the record’s sound bears witness to this. To accomodate Julie’s poor health, Buddy set up equipment in the couple’s bedroom, meaning the low-key, homemade feel of these songs is no put-on. Where previous Buddy and Julie albums have come with just the right amount of polish, and supple support from studio pros, this one’s all the Millers, leaning into an intimate simplicity. “Unused Heart” and “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South” both stick to the low embers of the blues, conjured by little more than the hiss and fuzz of Buddy’s electric guitar. There’s some percussion overdubbed here and there, but not the crisp pop of a snare drum or the ring of a hi-hat; on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the muffled thump could almost be someone knocking against a bedframe or a dresser drawer. The record hums with an appealing domesticity, and at times its crude clatter also suggests something of the caustic emotions that swirl around the album’s edges. Listen to the guitar strings and rattling tambourine bleeding into each other on “Feast of the Dead,” a grey smear of mourning. Of course, the highlight of this and any other album from the Millers is the blend of voices; Buddy’s cowboy croon remains a perfect foil to Julie’s impish energy and free spirit. In other words: They were made for each other, and their harmonies inject clinical-strength joy amidst the album’s sorrows.

One possible comparison is to the Over the Rhine album Drunkard’s Prayer: Both records find musical couples giving a long hard look at a relationship they may have been taking for granted, and at least glancing at the possibility that all of it could crumble. And, both records chronicle breakdowns but persist into breakthroughs, talking things out and laying the groundwork for reconciliation. Indeed, Breakdown is remarkable in its candor, and though the Millers have always favored plainspeak, they’ve never recorded songs as disarming or as brutal as some of the ones here. Most disarming: The mournful “Secret,” Buddy’s breakup backup plan, where he hopes he can at least hang on to his privacy (“don’t betray my confidence,” he pleads). Most brutal: The spare and spectral “Unused Heart,” where Julie cries out in the night and finds an emotionally distant partner by her side (“you might as well be made out of wood,” she smirks). “Nothing can be possessed but the struggle,” Flannery O’Connor once advised, and by taking ownership of their hardship the Millers create a meaningful context for their songs of union: “Spitting on Fire” affirms a love that can be as gentle as a spring rain or as ravenous as a hurricane, while “Til the Stardust Comes Apart” is a song of devotion so crisp and clean it could pass for a songbook standard.

Speaking of context, there are a handful of songs on the record that look beyond the Millers’ scenes-from-a-marriage to survey what’s happening in their neighborhood– and sometimes what they find is a world imploding on itself. That’s certainly the implication of “War Child,” where the next generation’s only inheritance is bloodlust and despair; the song is punctuated with the militant rumble of a snare drum. Amidst the jingle-jangle of “Feast of the Dead,” Julie sifts through the ash and dust of a dying planet, finding glimmering slivers of wisdom (“may we love while we’re in the light,” she urges, because time’s a-wastin’). The most evocative scene-setter of all is “Underneath the Sky,” where Julie hungers and thirsts for righteousness– “hard to find in a place like this,” she admits. Like Nick Cave, she’s singing the abattoir blues, and like Bob Dylan her heart’s already in the Highlands; “I want you to take me somewhere that truth and justice kiss,” she sighs, a simple and effective prayer language. It’s an important framing for the marriage songs, highlighting the high stakes and real danger of a world where moth and rust destroy, and where anything and everything falls apart.

These are heavy concerns, but Julie Miller’s never been involved with a record that she didn’t enliven with buoyant Christian witness– and here the writer of “All My Tears” offers one of her most striking spirituals yet. Amidst Dylan-esque folk chords, “Thoughts at 2am” awakes with worry but finds comfort in the everlasting arms. “The Author of compassion has our pain beneath his skin/ and so the whole wide world upon his fingertip does spin,” Buddy and Julie sing together; like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand. We all have a midnight breakdown sooner or later– but what this song supposes is, maybe there’s always someone listening after all?

Self-Portrait in Jazz: On the evolving Linda May Han Oh

aventurine

There’s a lifetime of music contained in Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine. No, that’s not a commentary on the album’s length; at 74 minutes, the program is generous and immersive, abiding discursions without ever feeling unfocused. There’s nothing on it that isn’t necessary to the big picture. Rather, it is a reflection of how Oh has quite literally been working toward this album her whole life. The material includes a few curated selections that sound like they’ve been seeded into her genetic code, revealing the lineage in which Oh situates herself: Chinese folk music to reflect her cultural upbringing, recalibrated jazz standards to ratify her chosen tradition. These songs are surrounded by original compositions, some of which are relatively new but several of which Oh has been playing, adjusting, and refining for over a decade, plumbing their depths and mastering their contours. Thus, Aventurine is an album about roots but also evolution; it adds up to a thesis statement, a synthesis of where Oh comes from and how it’s made her who she is. It is– to tweak a Bill Evans expression– a self-portrait in jazz.

If you don’t know Oh, now is a boon season for making her acquaintance. She plays upright bass with her husband, the pianist Fabian Almazon, on his new This Land Abounds with Life— another deep-dive into upbringing, culture, and identity, specifically his Cuban heritage. It’s an auspicious platform for Oh’s skill as an instrumentalist; listen to her fearless wayfinding on “The Everglades” for just one example of her style– nimble, tactile, molasses-thick. But it’s on Aventurine that you can witness her depth and imagination as a composer and a conceptual thinker. She recorded it with the dauntless ensemble of Greg Ward on saxophone, Chess Smith on drums, and Matt Mitchell on piano. Jazz improvisation provides its engine, but an air of classical refinement shimmers around the edges; both a string quartet and the Australian vocal group Invenio are featured throughout, the latter adding worldless evanescence not unlike the cloud of witnesses on Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel.

Aventurine gets its name from a green-hued quartz, variously described as opaque and translucent. It’s fitting imagery for a sparkling suite of songs that feels both accessible and coy; emotionally direct but stylistically unclassifiable, constantly reshaping itself in real time. Certainly Oh and her band don’t want for swing, and some of the record’s most persuasive moments come when they cut through the air of gentility with a brash, low-end rumble; in “Lilac Chaser,” the string section sounds like they’re soundtracking a summer garden party, right up until Oh and her rambunctious rhythm team start kicking up dirt, dissolving the song’s elegant veneer into a combustible groove. Other songs are just as kinetic, but unconventionally so: “Kirigami,” named for a particular strain of the origami tradition, folds ever inward, until all that’s left is a delicate solo from Oh; then it unfurls itself again, blossoming back out into orchestral opulence. Like the paper artistry that gives it its name, the song embodies precise workmanship and careful attention.

A few selections from the jazz canon reveal a composer who cherishes her roots, mostly insofar as they give her the right bearings for forward motion. Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” reimagines the frenetic energy of bebop through knotty bass, anxious strings, and a whiplash dialogue between piano and sax. An album-ending take on Evans’ “Time Remembered” translates the song’s brazen romance into an extended showcase for the string section. There’s also the Chinese folk song “Song Yue Rao,” which uses a simple melodic framework as scaffolding for skittering improvisation; its presence here is one of the most striking examples of Oh’s overlapping allegiances and ideologies, her family origins intersecting with her discipleship in jazz. The original compositions are just as revealing. In the glistening “Ebony,” stuttering rhythms build tension, then erupt into rapturous dance. “The Sirens are Wailing” is part tone poem, part historic epic, winding through ghostly atonalities and ravishing melodies with clear emotional logic and narrative sense. In “Rest Your Weary Head”– a two-parter that Oh wrote for her nieces– the string section creates a murky undertow, and vibraphones sound like depth charges; the piece builds from a lullaby into a knobbly, resilient groove. And in the cosmic swirl of “Aventurine,” the strings, piano, and voices enter one at a time, each registering something like awe and wonder. It sounds like real-time self-discovery; like nobody but Linda May Han Oh.