Musical veterans persevere with new releases

Eli Watson

A band’s true challenge lies in how they manage to remain relevant.

This is what separates the good from the bad — if one can captivate rather than remain stagnant, the results are often successful. Although both groups have been around for some time, Ohio blues-rock duo The Black Keys and Pennsylvania hip-hop collective The Roots have continued to challenge contemporaries in their respective fields.

Following 2010’s Brothers, The Black Keys present El Camino, a combination of polished production from producer Danger Mouse, and hard-driving guitar and drums. Unlike its predecessor, El Camino shows the band exchanging their soulful, moody beginnings for something more upbeat and lively. For example, “Dead and Gone” opens with pounding bass drum, and reverberating Beach Boys surf guitar. Along with the gospel choir-like claps and background vocals, “Dead and Gone” is vibrant with beach-y energy and vigor.

“Run Right Back” struts with a sexiness that features distorted, ZZ Top riffs and unrelenting, pulsating drums. “Hell of A Season” is irresistible. It punches with a subtle punk rock aggressiveness: Vocalist Dan Auerbach fearlessly croons over Patrick Carney’s thrashing drums.

El Camino embodies the bigger-than-life sound The Black Keys have always been known for. The melodic choruses accompany the duo’s gritty abrasiveness, allowing for moments of pure sweetness from unholy racket. The group confidently strides with simplified musicianship, making each song memorable for their kooky hooks.

Although the band’s more refined sound may seem to take away from the rough-edged dirtiness of Brothers, El Camino comes off as the band’s most sensual and attractive album yet.

Whereas The Black Keys’ power relies on the unity between cacophonous guitar and drums, The Roots’ mixture of soulful, hip hop-driven arrangements and insightful lyrical content is the definitive component of one of hip-hop’s most intriguing groups.

Taking a break from providing funky interludes on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” The Roots return with their 13th album, Undun. They have always prided themselves on being at the forefront of eclecticism. From the Radiohead-sampled “Atonement,” to the social commentary that is “How I Got Over,” The Roots find pleasure in pushing the boundaries of the vast collection of genres their music encompasses. Undun continues in a similar path as its predecessors, but shows the band’s growth as captivating storytellers.

Opener “Dun” foreshadows the crescendoing brilliance of the album. Spacey synths segue into “Sleep,” a brief, psychedelic-funk odyssey that transitions into the laid-back “Kool On.” Featuring a call and response between Jimi Hendrix riffs and gospel church organs, “Kool On” swaggers with guest appearances from Greg Porn and Truck North.

The uplifting “The Other Side” showcases vocalist Tariq Trotter’s distinctive vocal delivery. Alongside the militancy of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and the insightful narratives of Mos Def, Trotter’s in-your-face delivery compliments the fluidity of the musical arrangements backing him. “Step in my arena let me show y’all who the highness is,” Trotter confidently proclaims, his voice revealing a discomfort with the world that surrounds him.

Undun is beautifully dark. With each song there is one giant step into the unknown, revealing feelings of loneliness, cynicism and acceptance. The production is nearly impeccable; from the piano-driven Sufjan Stevens-featuring “Redford” to the raucous free-jazz apocalypse of “Possibility,” Undun is riveting in that it shows a musical growth that is cohesive and veracious. It moves like a well-written orchestral piece, calm and serene one moment, powerful and grandiose another, leaving you mesmerized until the very end. 

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Remarkable new releases captivate fans