Shostakovich 9, The Black Keys, and musical versatility

El Camino
Not actually an El Camino

I’ve recently finished getting acquainted with the Black Keys new album El Camino, their seventh studio album. My initial impressions are all pretty favorable, and I’m still humming whatever Track 9 is called. I know a couple Black Keys fans who do not like the direction taken by the band after Attack and Release, their fifth album which was slated to be a collaboration with Ike Turner before he went up to the great Buick Cutlass in the sky; Danger Mouse produced that album, and he produced El Camino, too. In between, the Keys explored their dark side, and by dark I mean black, with a rap album featuring the likes of Ludacris and Jim Jones and their sixth album Brothers, a shout out to 70’s soul as only two white guys from Akron can do it.

Those fans of the band’s sound on their early albums are almost assuredly not pleased with their newest effort, a pop-infused party album that at times conjures the sounds of everyone from Prince to Coldplay. It’s a far cry from the band’s early efforts like Thickfreakness and Magic Potion, straight-ahead blues albums with heavy rock beats and acid guitars that will unequivocally show up on your White Stripes Pandora station. Those were two-man games, stripped of any extraneous bullshit and showing off Dan Auerbach’s how-is-it-possible-this-person-is-white-and-under-65 voice and Patrick Carney’s John Bonham-esque physical and emotional abuse of drum heads and cymbals. With Brothers and again with El Camino, the sound world expands a bit to include keyboards, a fully incorporated bass player, the occasional Hammond B3, and one of those pseudo-backup choruses that makes every hook sound like the hot summer anthem from 1997.

El Camino is a 35-minute joy ride, the kind of music you desperately need on road trips, particularly through the country’s middle. All the songs sort of blend into one another, and even the one brief moment on the album of tender balladry is only the first half of a song that grooves pretty hard in the second half. It is a sort of expanded exploration of the sound world that proved so popular on “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You,” Brothers’ two singles and the first real big commercial successes the Black Keys experienced.

The thing is, all the tools are there, but they’ve just tweaked them into something different. Auerbach still sings the same. Carney still plays the drums the same. The guitars are filtered and fiddled with the same. The simplicity of the songs is the same. But they’re applied to a different musical worldview, and the results are quite a bit different than one might have expected.

When Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his Ninth Symphony, it was intended to be a grand spectacle celebrating the Russian victory over Nazi Germany in a little conflict you may have heard of. On top of that, the symphonies surrounding the Ninth in Shostakovich’s output are all dramas on a massive scale, from the Invasion March of the Seventh to the Alarm of the Eleventh. Add to that the legacy of Ninth symphonies in general and the expectations were through the roof.

So what did Shostakovich do? What any good master of irony and sarcasm would. He put on his hipster glasses, grabbed a soy vanilla latte, rode a $1,200 bike, and wrote a compact masterpiece with enough humor to make Haydn smile one of those eerie, forced smiles like Ben Franklin on the hundred-dollar bill. But as with the Black Keys, the tools are the same. Many of the characteristic features of Shostakovich’s music are contained in the relatively brief score; the prominent snare drum, the brazen woodwind writing, the off-kilter dances, the relentless momentum of the finale, and a dozen other hallmarks of his style are right there on the page.

The Ninth, in many ways, is borne of the same musical approach as El Camino, that being a deeper exploration of one element of one’s sound world. Shostakovich’s music is obviously littered with satire and irony, even in his most deeply profound works (like the third movement of the Quartet no. 8, for example), but with the Ninth Symphony we largely abandon any of the brooding seriousness that plays so heavy a role in much of Shostakovich’s symphonic output. The mysterious bassoon solo of the fourth movement is dark and foreboding, but even it ends up rolling itself right into the bouncy finale without incident. This is a symphony dedicated to fun and excitement come hell or high water.

The concept of “selling out” is common in the world of popular music. Two bands that leap to mind from my teenage years who are prime examples are Sugar Ray and Smashmouth, both of which began as something other than the poppy shit they supposedly devolved into. Smashmouth was a sort of ska punk thing who scored a hit in “Walkin’ On the Sun” and decided to write a bunch of songs like it. Sugar Ray was an alternative metal outfit before becoming big with the pillowy soft “Fly” and eventually continued writing quilted 2-ply music thereafter. Whatever qualms I have with the entire concept of scorning a musician or group of musicians for finding a sound that achieves commercial success and running as far as they can with it, both Smashmouth and Sugar Ray abandoned their roots almost completely, and fans of the pre-explosion bands were left with the bitter taste of their own disdain.

Classical music is not so afflicted with the concept of selling out, certainly not before the 20th century. Shostakovich didn’t sell out with his Ninth, and in fact he did the exact opposite, at least within his own canon. And yet Shostakovich was a sell out when viewed through the clenched fists of the avant-garde or the serialists (there are a whole heap of historical factors in play as to why Shostakovich wrote the way he did, but for the purposes of contemporary listening audiences none of that matters). The very fact that he was writing tonal music with understandable structures makes many of his greatest works the “Hey Now, You’re a Rock Star” of 20th-century music. But Shostakovich could write in so many ways: the brutal dissonances of the Fourth Symphony, the moments of unabashed joy in the Piano Concerti, the absolute profundity of the Eighth Quartet, the sheer intensity of the Thirteenth, the carefree swing of the Jazz Suites (slide guitar!).

The danger of selling out is there for the Black Keys, no doubt. I’ve already heard cuts from the new album as the background to a statistics display on Monday Night Football and on an ad for something on VH1. As a fan of their blues stylings, I hope they don’t stray too far. But even if they do, their catalog has displayed enough versatility to continue to garner respect, even from snooty assholes like myself. They’ve shown that they can play blues, rock, soul, and pop and do each of them successfully enough to become one of the most popular bands in the world. Maybe they’re headed for a Radiohead-like future where they just do whatever the fuck they want, but the chances are probably worse than I’d hope that they’re going to ride this horse until it collapses from dehydration, colic, and other horsey ailments.

But there’s a lesson in Shostakovich. As out of place as the Ninth Symphony seems compared to everything around it, the fact is that when the time came for Shostakovich to finally bare the deepest recesses of his soul in a symphony, what came out had an awful lot in common with the Ninth. There is plenty of darkness in the Symphony no. 15, but there is plenty of joy, too, and the symphony is an amazingly concise and powerful summation of all the elements that Shostakovich used in his career. Bear with me as I keep my fingers crossed that a band 40 years, two instruments, and a yawning chasm of styles apart can find the same magic.

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