This is the second in a series of eight posts breaking down each of the Black Keys albums leading up to the release of Turn Blue on May 13.
Is there a more aptly titled album than Thickfreakness (2003)?* I have no idea what it means, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. This is firmly in The Black Keys period of music first, lyrics second. The best definition for what exactly Thickfreakness is comes in the first note on the album in the title track. A crunchy, loud, slide that opens into the most full bodied guitar sound the Black Keys had released at that point in their career. The words in the first verse are so unintelligible that most lyric websites used to just put question marks for half the words. As it is, it only contains 6 lines of lyrics.
But don’t get me wrong, “Thickfreakness“** is a great song. It’s doesn’t just open the door to the album, it kicks it in Cops style. What’s interesting though, is that this album is actually less raucous than The Big Come Up. Sure, the next song “Hard Row” would fit right in on their previous album, and “Set You Free” features Pat Carney’s drumming more prominently than any of their songs until their third album, but “Midnight is in Her Eyes”, “Hurt Like Mine”, “Everywhere I go”, and “I Cry Alone” are distinct departures from the kids-in-the-basement feel of their debut.
“Set You Free” became their biggest hit to date and for good reason. It’s a fun song featuring the relentless drums of Carney. It is featured in a prominent scene of the great movie “School of Rock” with Jack Black, beginning what would be a common theme for the Black Keys: being used in soundtracks and commercials. It seems these days that you can’t go a day without hearing the Black Keys in a commercial or any movie looking for a cool factor. But in 2003, it must have been quite a thrill for Auerbach and Carney.
Thickfreakness also continues the Black Keys’ obsession with the music of Junior Kimbrough and the style of Kimbrough can be felt throughout this album. Kimbrough was known for his hill country blues style of playing. Hailing from Chulahoma, Mississippi, Kimbrough played a droning, hypnotic style that allowed for individual interpretation within the repetitive blues riffs. You can hear Auerbach mimicking Kimbrough’s style on the cover song “Everywhere I Go”, as well as “If You See Me”, “Hurt Like Mine”, and “Hold Me In Your Arms”.
I like to think of albums in terms of places, time periods, or weather. If The Big Come Up makes you feel like you are in that basement in Akron, Thickfreakness transports you to a juke joint in Mississippi. Although, it doesn’t stay there the whole time. The cover song “Have Love Will Travel” reminds you of The Black Keys garage band roots, too. “Have Love” is a cover of a Richard Berry song, but Auerbach and Carney play it more in the style of the most famous version by 60’s garage rock band The Sonics.
I love this album. It’s another example of The Black Keys knowing exactly who they are as artists and operating to their full capacity. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But rock and roll isn’t perfect. Punk music made that point a long time ago. And The Black Keys will take a cue from punk music with their next album Rubber Factory (2004). Check back next week for my review of that one, it’s my personal favorite.
I love “Thickfreakness“, and “Hold Me in Your Arms“, and many others, but it’s hard to top “Set You Free”.
*Maybe ZZ Top’s debut ZZ Top’s First Album
**Link is to a video of my first Black Keys concert. It’s a terrible video with a bad quality phone speaker, but it gives you the idea of the power of the opening note. Keep in mind they were still using this as a concert opener in 2010, seven years and five albums after it’s release. Also, yes that’s a shameless plug to get more views on my four year old video.