Electric chair on cover of Black Keys album

Two titans of rock face off these days with recent albums: Akron, Ohio's Black Keys and Detroit's Jack White and his mostly Cincinnati-based Raconteurs.

Gotta love that Ohio connection. Not only did Ohio generals win the Civil War, but most of the farm-boy regiments Sherman used to make Georgia howl were from Ohio (and Indiana).

We're as tough as turkey buzzards.

(By the way, I saw one strutting down West 1st Avenue in Grandview the other day, having pecked at some grisly pile of fur and guts in the road. Thing really did look like a big fat turkey. Its wingspread was enormous, taking off like a B-52.)

The two unequally fine albums make for a helluva death match. Let's get after it.

Their rock this time out is '70s heavy both in energy as well as nuanced period-piece production. Want a little AC/DC, Queen, ELO and even Stealers Wheel with your modern rock? Jack and Dan reach deep into their magic trick bags and the mix of styles are dang good for the most part and at times even colossal.

While America becomes more and more a case of “No Country For Old Men" when it comes to manly rock, these boys have pulled aces, kings and queens out of their Rust Belt sleeves. Rocking balls-out and balladeering their hearts out is de rigueur for each.

Yet disparity weakens one of the players.

In this corner, clocking in at a dozen tracks, the Raconteurs' Help Us Stranger, Brendan Benson sharing co-writing credit with White; over here, the Black Keys' Let's Rock, also weighing in at 12 songs and more middle-of-the-road than White's. Jack has a full band to bounce off of; Dan the Man has got...just his longtime drummer, Pat Carney. It shows.

Interestingly, the two each have a song about a shining light in its title. And both jump out with AC/DC-like power chords and sustain a flight of fast 'n' hard songs. Yet even from the opening salvos, you get Jack the powerful personality – all passion and loads of craft; and with Dan you get a formula of production and nuance, and eventually substantially less energy. Disconcerting, that.

The Rac's opener Bored and Razed is straight-up mad dog attack with loads of shock-and-awe. Auerbach's monster chords on the chorus of Shine A Little Light make it a walloping contender for Hard Rocksville Alumnus: you've heard the sound before but the smell ain't musty retread but fresh roadkill for Amish country turkey vultures. Wonderful openers, both.

Almost immediately their personages appear.

Jack can sound wildly tormented, Dan just sounds a little less weary than usual. Where Jack is ferociously unreasonable in his attack, Dan seems content to do his Jeff Lynne impersonation at the control board. While many of Dan's songs are merely good to very good, the Raconteurs turn out some of their best stuff ever on this, their third album.

Thus Let's Rock's fatal weakness: nuanced, tasty '70s production over grit. There are a few tunes that just kind of lukewarm their way into your consciousness. That ain't good. We want stomps, we want stomps!

Jack White tolerates none of that pulling of punches. His ballads have clever flourishes and feeling; his rockers command Mt. Rushmore-like attention. If this were a horse race by the end of the eleventh song, White would be several lengths ahead.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to each album's denouement.

Both guys pull out their magic closers: each dude's twelfth song is amazing.

White's Thoughts and Prayers is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and specially tuned two-chord ballads since Moses wore short pants and Little Richard partied with Buddy Holly. The thing is obviously and ever-so-slightly a nod to White's Zep love. I must confess, the thing is moving. What a song.

Think Zep II's Thankyou, a Page/Plant tour de force. They're related, somehow.

And then you have Auerbach's Firewalk With Me which just may be the best song on either album. A medium guitar-and-drums tempo, his vocal has a sustained Roy Orbison-like delivery (of all people), that after a couple more lines goes into a hauntingly emotional gracefulness the likes of which gives me chills on my arms and down my back. Quite simply, he puts production aside and reaches into his mature soul and completely matches Jack, feeling for feeling. This is a rhythmic of such heavy emotionality I still am stunned every time I hear it. What a feat on Auerbach's part.

Prior to Firewalk, Jack had had him beat. But with his last song, Auerbach more than made up for a few slightly stunted tunes which gave White the lead. Both these great guys delivered the goods. They made me howl.


The New York Times reported late last week that the classic Jimmy Cliff movie, "The Harder They Come," has been re-released. Hopefully Gateway will be booking it soon. Back in the very early '70s, many of you will remember it was a staple at 'underground' midnight movie showings in college districts and bohemian neighborhoods around the country. Cliff plays a Jamaican country boy who goes to the city, cuts a hit record, gets cheated, becomes a criminal hero and gets killed by the police. The soundtrack, featuring several Cliff songs, is perhaps the single finest collection of Jamaican music ever gathered. Say hello to an old friend again.


Speaking of rebel music...

If you haven't already, check out Elvis Costello and the Attractions playing an electrifying version of his anti-corporate-radio anthem Radio Radio from his his second album, This Year's Model, on Saturday Night Live in December, 1977. For some reason, producer Lorne Michaels had forbade the playing of the song and as Elvis began his Less Than Zero about Oswald Mosely, a right-wing politician, he stopped and fired into Radio. It is an absolutely spirited rebellion the likes of which we've not seen in a million years. Costello I don't think ever topped this performance of utter brilliant bile and word play. The Attractions backed him stupendously. You want rebel music, it's in the palm of your hand.

I've had the song in my head for four damned days now. Wakes me up in the morning. Yeah!

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