Thursday, June 16, 2011

All the Blacks

Prince, Jay-Z, Metallica, or Spinal Tap?
No matter how often somebody proclaims that ________ is the new black, the old black will always be.... black. Black is so suffused with symbolic meaning that it will always be a cultural mainstay, not just of fashion design, but for song titles, album titles, and, for our purposes today, band names. There are a boatload of band names using the word "black," and as part of a recurring feature here, we're going to try and sort them out.

So let's leave aside for the moment Frank Black and Clint Black; I don't think anybody's going to get those two mixed up. Likewise the suddenly ubiquitous Rebecca Black. Set aside also classic rockers Black Sabbath, and the Black Crowes, who are classic rockers born too late. Hardcore heroes Black Flag are  defunct since 1986. Reggae giants Black Uhuru dissolved their classic lineup about the same time. The Happy Mondays spinoff Black Grape is also out of business, as are several other succinctly named bands called Black.

And to simplify matters, let's briefly talk about the hip-hop bands first. The Black Eyed Peas are megastars now, and even if you didn't see the last Super Bowl, need no introduction. Highbrow rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli put out one 1998 album together as Black Star, titled, helpfully, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. Another literate alt-rap duo, Blackalicious, picked up the mantle in 1999, and are about to release their fourth album.

For our purposes, we're trying to tell the difference between 21st century rock bands with confusingly similar names. And that still leaves us with, at a minimum, the Black Keys, Black Lips, Black Kids, Black Angels, Black Dub, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Black Moth Super Rainbow.

I've said before that I think the Black Keys are hands down one of the best bands working today. Nearly everything I hear from them kicks my ass around like an old tin can. Their gnarly blues-rock sound is simultaneously timeless and contemporary – and they seem to get better with every release. Last year's Brothers topped a lot of Top Ten lists, including my own. I'm stoked to hear they're working with Danger Mouse again for their new one. Like the White Stripes and the Kills, the band is a duo, with Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney on drums; they formed in Akron, Ohio around the turn of the century. And notably for our purposes, they also have a hip-hop side project called Blackroc, which features rap vocals from the aforementioned Mr. Def, among many others.

Maybe if I pray to the spirit of Les Paul, the Black Keys will come play in Tucson someday. But in five days, Black Lips will be here, and they sound like a lot of fun. You gotta love a band that calls themselves "flower punk" and names a Peruvian garage band of the 60s as one of their biggest influences. Long noted for their "crude antics" and "provocative theatrics" onstage as well as for a satisfying pop-punk/blues-country pastiche, this Atlanta band just released their sixth album. When the label asked them to use an outside producer, the band asked for the biggest names they could think of, and, to their surprise, found themselves working with Mark Ronson. The results are a slightly more accessible version of their signature sound, or what guitarist Cole Alexander hopes "will be our most fucked-up but successful album."

Both the Black Angels and Black Moth Super Rainbow are associated to some extent with psychedelia – in which case you'd think they'd choose more polychromatic band names. But they don't sound much alike. Austin's Black Angels have a grittier sound that harkens back to touchstones like the Velvets and Roky Erickson (whom they have backed on record). Just to confuse you, they've been compared to the Canadian band Black Mountain, and have opened for the Black Keys and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Pittsburgh's Black Moth Super Rainbow, on the other hand, embraced a more modern version of psychedelia, incorporating electronica and dream pop, so their sound is gentler and moodier, if still a bit edgy. They probably fit right in as an opening act for the Flaming Lips (not to be confused with Black Lips - there may be a quiz later). The band members are named Tobacco, d.kyler, Ryan Graveface, and the Seven Fields of Aphelion, so I think we can assume their interest in psychedelics is more than theoretical.

Our other four-worded band name is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, known to their fans as BRMC. They came to prominence around the same time as other rock revivalists like the White Stripes and the Strokes, and like the latter, have obviously listened to a lot of VU. But other touchstones for this San Francisco-based band are Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Over the years they've evolved from their fuzz-toned noise pop to a more stripped-down attack that works well for them. The near-perfect single "Conscience Killer" off last year's  Beat the Devil's Tattoo is a great example of their latter-day evolution.

Black Kids are a five-piece indie band from Florida (one of whom is actually black) with one album under their belts. All I know of them is a cool single titled "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You." You might have heard it on Glee. They'll be coming to a town near you – if you live in Florida.

That brings us to Black Dub, a project that includes Dylan/U2 producer Daniel Lanois. It incorporates the titular genre into the swampy mix that is Lanois' signature sound, and features smoky vocals from Trixie Whitley. It is to like.

Okay, have I left anybody out?

Videos, then:
Black Keys, "Your Touch"
Black Lips, "Bad Kids"
Black Angels, "Young Men Dead"
Black Moth Super Rainbow, "Born On A Day The Sun Didn't Rise"
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Conscience Killer"
Black Kids, "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You"
Black Dub, "Love Lives"

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