Ohio Players

Like many couples in a long-term relationship, the Black Keys decided to look outside their union for inspiration when it came time to record Ohio Players, the band’s twelfth album. No strangers to extracurricular collaborations—guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach practically lives at his Easy Eye Sound, producing records for Robert Finley, Hermanos Gutiérrez, Marcus King, Early James, and Shannon and the Clams in the last few years—the band hasn’t brought additional musicians into the studio since reviving their partnership in 2019 with “Let’s Rock”, a back-to-basics platter that seemed to reject the psychedelic haze engulfing 2014’s Turn Blue.

Turn Blue, like so many of the albums the Black Keys released on Nonesuch between 2008 and 2014, was co-produced by Danger Mouse, a collaborator who helped Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney move far beyond the band’s grimy garage-blues roots. After working with Danger Mouse, the Black Keys prized production—the tactical, physical sound of a record—as much as the song itself, an aesthetic that carries through to Ohio Players. Pointedly avoiding the expansive exploration of their Obama-era albums, the Black Keys instead rely on the bag of tricks they’ve developed over their career intent on creating interesting juxtapositions from familiar sounds.

Sonically speaking, there’s nothing about Ohio Players that feels unexpected. It’s a bustling concoction of fuzz-speckled riffs, funky rhythms, sweet harmonies, tart hooks, and spectral keyboards, the kinds of refurbished retro-rock that are not only the band’s stock in trade but Auerbach’s signature as a producer. Even the presence of rappers Lil Noid and Juicy J on “Candy and Her Friends” and “Paper Crown” recalls Blakroc, the duo’s 2009 excursion into rap-rock, yet the fact that Black Keys have explicitly carved space for hip-hop on Ohio Players goes a long way in explaining why the album doesn’t feel like a retread. Instead of siloing their interests, the group synthesizes them, making a record that feels lively, fresh, and colorful.

To that end, Beck is the crucial collaborator on Ohio Players. Half of the album’s fourteen songs bear a Beck co-writing credit and his presence is felt throughout, whether it’s his lead vocals on “Paper Crown” or how the very sound of the record is pitched halfway between the dense collage of Odelay and the vibrant neo-soul of Midnite Vultures. The Black Keys may follow Beck’s genre-bending lead—the lithe “Candy and Her Friends” bears his imprint but it’s the only song Auerbach and Carney wrote on their own—but they never give the impression of an ironic distance. There’s a reason why a sumptuous cover of William Bell’s slow-burning Stax classic “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” resides smack dab in the middle of Ohio Players: Underneath all the stylish clamor, the Black Keys remain anchored in classic soul.

Nevertheless, the blueprint they’ve sketched with Beck allows the Black Keys to freely play with genre throughout Ohio Players. Dan the Automator flips the throwback vibe of “Beautiful People (Stay High)” upside down by relying on cut-up horns and nagging tambourines. Chintzy organ and garish saxophones give “You’ll Pay” the air of a lost ’60s Nugget, an attitude accentuated by the ’60s sensibilities of Noel Gallagher, the song’s co-writer. Gallagher helps sharpen the Black Keys’ pop attack on “Only Love Matters” and also does his best George Harrison impression with the sighing guitar lines he threads through “On the Game,” one of the best ballads the Black Keys have ever cut. The other important contributor to Ohio Players is Greg Cartwright, the leader of the late garage rock titans Reigning Sound, who helps Auerbach and Carney reconnect with their grubby roots on the relentless “Please Me (Till I’m Satisfied)” and “Read Em and Weep,” which refashions surf for the landlocked Midwest.

While it’s easy to distinguish what each collaborator brings to the table, Ohio Players isn’t disjointed: it’s as coherent as a curated jukebox. All that credit goes to the Black Keys who, after 23 years together, know themselves well enough to know how to accentuate their strengths by choosing the right musician for the right song, confident that they’ll wind up with a record that sounds unmistakably like themselves.

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The Black Keys: Ohio Players