For four years, I lived in Akron, Ohio. These four years were fascinating, because Akron somehow manages to be completely bizarre and profoundly archetypal at the same time; I am 95 percent certain it was the inspiration for the community of Springfield on The Simpsons (and I have proof of this). However, the aspect I always found most striking was the degree to which Akronians adore their local music scene. The reason this is so striking is because the music scene they adore does not currently exist. Unless you inexplicably count Warrant, the last important band to hail from Akron was Devo, and that was 25 years ago. Oh sure, Chrissie Hynde is technically from Akron (though she had to move to England to get famous), and so is Joseph Arthur (though his relationship to the city isn’t even as compelling as the fact that Jeffrey Dahmer used to live there, too). These are minor details. What Akronite hipsters cherish most is their unyielding nostalgia for the Carter administration: They have built an entire philosophical identity on the premise that Seattle in 1992 and Chapel Hill in 1994 should have been northeast Ohio in 1979, which is partially true but mostly irrelevant. In Akron, the present is still the past.
Quite suddenly, however, Akron has spawned the most compelling two-piece, hyper-primitive, blues-based rock band of the last five years. Well, OK, not quite; I guess there’s at least one band from Detroit that’s kind of like that, and they’re also pretty decent. But Akron’s version of that sonic formula—the Black Keys—are almost as interesting as their red-and-white forerunners, and they’ve made a debut record as cool and jagged as anything that’s come out all year. It still sounds like the past, I suppose, but at least that past is now the future.
The Big Come Up is what would have happened if Jack White had liked Mountain’s Climbing more than Led Zeppelin II, and if he thought Randy California and Stevie Winwood were better singers than Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Now, I realize that equation sounds horrific. But something here translates. The Black Keys are relentlessly heavy (way heavier than the White Stripes), but their reinvention of the blues never surrenders into the temptations of metal. What frontman Dan Auerbach does is make Leslie West seem like an underrated genius. Moreover, Auerbach has an intriguing vocal delivery: Instead of sounding like a white dude trying to sing like a black guy, he sounds like a white dude trying to sing like some other white dude who’s trying to sing like a black guy. Here again, I’m not sure how this became desirable.
Cagily produced by untrained drummer (i.e., former guitar player) Patrick Carney, The Big Come Up can essentially be defined by its four strongest songs: “I’ll Be Your Man” (sort of a pseudo-sexy mid-tempo Otis Redding homage), “The Breaks” (sort of a Boss Hog number, I think), “Leavin’ Trunk” (sort of “Mississippi Queen,” minus the sort of), and a better-than-solid Beatles cover (“She Said, She Said”). So I suppose nobody is ever gonna accuse these rubber city rebels of being overly creative (it doesn’t help that they’ve picked a name for their band that starts with the word “The” and follows with the name of a color). But right now, that’s as irrelevant as the memory of 1979; this is one of the five best records of 2002, and bass players everywhere should continue to grow nervous.