White people can't play the blues. Granted, some black people can't play it, either. But most new blues these days is played by white people — talented Austin guitarist Gary Clark, Jr., is one obvious exception — and most blues these days utterly sucks. Blame it on a malady we'll call White Blues Syndrome: Ninety-five percent of the time, if you give a pale-skinned guitarist, singer, or saxophonist a blues progression to play over, they'll treat it like a compulsive tagger treats an unmolested swath of bathroom stall. They scribble their self-importance all over it. They spray notes like a piss-happy baby whose diaper just came off. Even blues guitar greats of the Caucasian persuasion, like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, have used the form as a chance to exhibit their ability to wank: Look at me solo! I can play fast! I can spit out so many notes you can't even keep track of them all! Aren't I awesome?
But wanking off is not playing the blues. The blues — if you will allow this white, twentysomething, blues-obsessed writer to lecture you on such a deep and mythical topic — is about feeling. That's why it's called the blues. Yet because a I-IV-V chord progression is the easiest thing in music to improvise a solo over, the blues has been treated, since around the mid-'60s, as a backdrop for musicians to show off their technical skills.
Some people frown on the Black Keys now that their music is enjoyed by the masses and played on the radio and performed in places like the nearly 20,000-capacity Oracle Arena. But here's the thing about the Black Keys: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have never called themselves a blues band, yet they've always understood that the essence of the genre is communicating a feeling, not showing off a skill. This rock duo has done a better job of howling the blues with honesty — or least not fucking it up royally — than any other blues-influenced band of their time, including the excellent but wank-inclined White Stripes.
Go back and listen to "Thickfreakness," the title track off the Keys' second album. You'll notice plenty of that nebulous yet essential quality that musicians call "feel." Much of it comes from Carney, the way he's so far behind the beat that it sounds like he's drumming from another time zone. Playing behind the beat is a crucial ingredient of the blues, yet it's one that few players — especially white ones — seem to understand. (The late Levon Helm was another white drummer who excelled at lingering way behind the beat.) In his fascinating autobiography, jazz great Charles Mingus describes imagining a circle in time around each beat, and says players should produce their note at some point along that circle, never exactly on the beat. The great bluesmen, whether white or black, all understood this.
Rhythmic nuances are essential to the feel of the blues. But the worst aspects of White Blues Syndrome come from indulgent guitar players and singers using every opening in the music to vomit out a solo or lead — the very opposite of nuance. Since they spent years with only three sonic tools at hand — guitar, voice, and drums — the Black Keys don't often take indulgent solos, and they understand the value of negative space. Auerbach's guitar leads tend toward simplicity, favoring melody over noodling, largely because while soloing he had to keep the rest of each song going. His influences help: Auerbach derived his style from venerable blues minimalists like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Robert Nighthawk, who all play a lean, rhythm-based form very different from the self-conscious stylings that spew out of players affected by White Blues Syndrome. Also key to this overall feel: Auerbach's voice, whose grainy depths summon serious anguish.
The Black Keys have lately been accused of trading away these strengths. The band's highly regarded 2010 album, Brothers, was a slow-moving, dark-hued masterpiece, but last year's Danger Mouse-produced El Camino is the closest thing to a pop album the Keys have ever made. First single "Lonely Boy" is basically a classic rock jingle, and its popularity has helped make them huge enough to play arenas. "Gold on the Ceiling" rides an upbeat, blues-lite groove. "Little Black Submarines" is a slow-building epic à la "Stairway to Heaven," with all the Led Zep drama but without the annoying pomposity.
These songs stray from the minimalism of the Keys' early work. And they lack some of the homegrown charm of albums like Thickfreakness, which was recorded over one 14-hour session in the band's basement. But El Camino sees the Keys sounding as good or better than they've ever sounded before: hookier, more upbeat, and just more fun. The blues is a few layers down, but it's still there, restraining Auerbach's leads, fueling the sway of Carney's groove, and adding an extra helping of grit to the moaning of heartache and gloom.
Of course, the album's success — the fact that this is no longer a quirky indie duo on a label called Fat Possum, but a widely known rock band on a major imprint — has led to a sort of revolt among the types of people who, five or six years ago, would've been proud to say they liked the Black Keys. Shunning a band for becoming popular is almost always dumb, but especially so in this case. Long before they were staples of rock radio, the Black Keys were quietly rescuing one of America's most important musical forms from decades of abuse by overeager musicians, providing a crucial counter example to those who would inflict their self-importance on the music. The Black Keys have evolved, as every artist does. But unlike some of their contemporaries, they're still here. And they haven't come down with White Blues Syndrome yet.