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Track review: The Black Keys, "Tighten Up"

Patrick Carney of The Black Keys performing August 6, 2010 at Lollapalooza
Patrick Carney of The Black Keys performing August 6, 2010 at Lollapalooza
Susan Schomburg

The first single off Brothers, the latest studio album from The Black Keys, finds the Akron-based blues-rock duo of Dan Auerbach (guitar and vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) in fine form.  With slightly poppier sensibilities than some of the album's other outstanding tracks, "Tighten Up" was a good choice to set the radio ball rolling, and it's yielded good results; the single broke the top 20 in alternative charts, and their music video for the single is in the running for an MTV Video Music Award this fall.

In typical blues fashion, the song's lyrics detail heartbreak and loss, and a wistful, nostalgic tone is set early on in the music by a whistled intro with chirpy, slightly-reverbed backbeat guitar chords, hearkening back to that doe-eyed time just before you got crushed by your first love. Auerbach wails the first verses, "I wanted love/I needed love/Most of all...Someone said/True love was dead/And I'm bound to fall...for you."  The instrumental interludes plunge the listener headlong into subsequent verses; you get the feeling the story he's telling isn't going to end well, but want to know what happened anyway.

The thing that blows me away about The Black Keys' music (and a big part of why I love them so), time and again, is their attention to detail. The smallest changeups happen at just the right moment to enhance the mood.  For example, when Auerbach sings the verse that begins,  "I was young and moving fast/Nothing slowed me down," the nasal whine of electric organ appears for the first (and only) time during the track.  It gives the verse an almost churchy, melancholic-gospel feel to it, as if Auerbach's telling us a cautionary tale (which, when you think about it, he is).  If it wasn't there, you probably wouldn't miss it, but its presence makes the passage unique and drives home the feelings of loss and regret that bubble just below the surface throughout the song.

My favorite part of this track, though, is when the guys change things up, effecting a complete change in mood without changing the clip of the beat (the eighths keep coming at the same pace) or the key (the chords are exactly the same).  In fact, they don't even introduce any new musical material; Auerbach just brings the rhythm guitar riff (already present during the instrumental interludes) to the fore.  The metric accent shifts from straight 4/4 time to the less common (3+3+2)/8.  It's a remarkably unusual move, especially in pop music, but yields fantastic results.  When the song hits that meter change, you feel like you've come home--because you have.  The section is the musical payoff of all the delightful foreshadowing the band did earlier in the song.  The meter change shifts your frame of mind from dwelling on the past, to dealing with its consequences in the present: "Living just to keep going/Going just to stay sane/All the while I know it's such a shame."

In another example of the tiniest detail that absolutely makes a moment in this song are the drum fills Carney makes after the meter change.  The band sets up the shift from 4 to mainly-3 with an instrumental section, and things seem to be chugging along with Auerbach's new-old rhythm guitar riff brought to the front and Carney's drums backing him up.  When the guitar part sustains a chord for longer than strummed-eighths, the drum fill does something unexpected.  Instead of the snare hits punctuated by one bass-drum hit, Carney puts two in, playing (just a little) with the newly-established meter, phasing the count over to 3+2+3 for one measure.  That part gets me every time.

Incidentally, the music video for the single is as awesome as the song itself, full of the guys' quirky humor and attention to weird detail, like the mirroring between the kids and adults (pastries in pockets? who does that?) and the band's penchant for hilariously cartoonish, exaggerated violence.

Related articles:

Concert review: The Black Keys at Metro 8/7/10 (Chicago Indie Rock Examiner)

Festival review: Lollapalooza 2010 Day 1 (Chicago Indie Rock Examiner)

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