Flipping through Rolling Stone at the drug store about a week ago, I saw a short article about the Black Keys recording at Muscle Shoals, the legendary Alabama recording studio (Aretha, Wilson Picket, Stones, etc.). I made a mental note to check out the details online (Rule #143: Never buy a magazine with a teen heartthrob on the cover), but before I got a chance to, I was told by an old acquaintance, Dave Doyle, that his ex-band mate Mark Neill was producing. I got all sorts of worked up, for a few reasons. Number one is that the Black Keys shit don't stink. Number two: neither does Neill's. There's two right there. And Muscle Shoals studio has produced some epic shit in the past, so it seems like it could be the perfect storm for a landmark album.
When the first Black Keys album, The Big Come Up, came out in 2002, there were all these stories of guitarist Dan Auerbach honing his chops and blues cred hanging out with T-Model Ford for an extended length of time (not something your everyday guitarist would bother doing). Their sound was extraordinarily full for a two piece, more so than the White Stripes, the "other two piece" band that they were often compared to. The production, by drummer Patrick Carney, was awesome and meaty. They referred to it as "medium fidelity" ("equal parts broke ass shit and hot ass shit") and had somehow tapped into that missing link between distorto-blues and the heavy thud seventies guitar sound of bands like Mountain, Cactus, and raunchier Led Zepplin. It was an impressive debut and, other than producers, they've pretty much stuck to the same formula in their subsequent releases. That's not to say they don't branch out; they do. But they do so with other projects.
A year or so ago, Auerbach released a solid solo album (mixed by Neill), and Carney followed that up with his side band, Drummer (self described as shoegaze on the MySpace page...blech). And recently, as Blakroc, the two teamed up with a hip hop A-listers, which has probably brought unfair comparisons to other hip hop/rock collaborations. It's a bit more significant, to team up a primarily roots type band with rappers doing new material, than, say, Aerosmith and Run DMC teaming up for "Walk this Way." Time will tell if it carries the weight of some sort of groundbreaking fusion, but as a concept it clearly kicks ass.
How the Black Keys know Mark Neill, I've got no idea. He's familiar to many of the old San Diego punk rock/retro crowd through his work as guitarist for the Unknowns. One of the few local bands in the early eighties that could actually play well, they somehow managed to mesh a sixties reverb drenched sound with a little organ and, surprisingly enough, actual singing. To call them a punk band is inaccurate at best, but that's the crowd they were lumped with, such was San Diego's sad state for non-cover bands at the time. Singer Bruce Joyner was studied, and really into good singers (Del Shannon and Roy Orbison come to mind). Neill was all about Mosrite guitars and the Ventures/Semie Moseley lineage, showing a keen interest in sound, not just songs. It was that interest, and his disappointment with the production of the Unknowns early output, that led him to open his own studio (in '82 or '83).
Neill's studio, Soil of the South, is, at this point, very well known for it's retro sound and vintage equipment. Not unlike Liam Watson's Toe Rag Studios in the UK, bands record there to get that stamp of authenticity. Neill's recorded the elite of the pomade army, notably Deke Dickerson, Big Sandy, Rip Carson, and the Paladins, along with Billy Zoom, Carl Rusk, the Tell-Tale Hearts and surf stalwarts Los Straightjackets. Suffice it to say, with Neill's equipment, the Black Keys sensibilities and the walls of Muscle Shoals, there's every reason to expect good things to come out of the ten day recording session. That Neill's been quoted as saying that the album would be "their biggest statement...the equivalent to Radiohead's 'OK Computer'" not only raises expectations, but begs the question: Mark Neill was cognizant of Radiohead?
Mark Neill's Soil of the South studio (with excellent in-studio photography by Dave Doyle)
The Unknowns - Flip Your Switch mp3 at the Che Underground