It’s been no secret that (update: 10 of the 15 new tracks) the new Black Keys album ‘Brothers’ was recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Alabama USA, since the Deputy Managing Editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Nathan Brackett, revealed via Twitter in September 2009:
Patrick Carney played us a new Black Keys tune recorded at Muscle Shoals (bananas!) and stuff from their new “Blakroc” (watch out Timbaland)
For the uninitiated the words Muscle Shoals meant nothing. For those with an understanding of the heritage of American music it meant everything. Knowing the new Black Keys album was recorded at Muscle Shoals more than raises the expectations of fans everywhere.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was and is where a sound and community of musicians gathered to make some primarily rhythm and blues classics. Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) were the house rhythm section and owners of the Studio where artists as diverse as Bill Haley and the Comets recorded through the 1970s.
The small studio and its intimate atmosphere and the accomplished musicians combined with the Studio’s analog recording equipment to create a rich distinctive sound that other artists wanted a piece of. Add to this mix the isolation of the region, as Pat Carney recently commented in an interview about the new album:
They emerged with their most minimalist-sounding effort yet, Carney said.
“There really wasn’t anything to do down there,” Carney said. “The record has this feeling of absolute isolation. It’s heavy. It’s dark. And I think it’s our best yet.”
The Rolling Stones recorded the notable Wild Horses and Brown Sugar tracks over 3 days at Muscle Shoals in 1969 with Jimmy Johnson engineering the sessions. So bands have always gone to the Studio to be inspired by the history and the recording set up. They could immerse themselves in and be part of the canon of American rhythm and blues music through their connection with this recording crucible.
In 2000 musican and enthusiast Noel Webster bought and seemingly revived this legendary studio. As has has been noted in many interviews with Webster since:
Webster has refurbished the studio (repairing water damage, installing new wiring, etc.), and rather than install up-to-date recording equipment, he ordered exact replicas of the vintage gear used during the 1970s — down to the same model numbers. “The way they construct studios now is very different,” he added. “But we did a sound test and recorded some stuff on different formats, and realized we didn’t need to change anything. The sounds that came out of this room can’t be duplicated. The building shakes when you play in it.”
For a studio and equipment devotee like Dan Auerbach, listening to many of the recordings from Muscle Shoals over the years and hearing of the revival of the authentic Muscle Shoals recording set up must have been, er, music to his ears. Dan has long championed the importance of recording technique and studio sound. His solo release ‘Keep It Hid’ was recorded in his own custom-built studio (Akron Analog) and it was often remarked in interviews how the album could well have been produced in the 1970s. It’s not surprising considering the attention to detail at Akron Analog, as Dan has explained about his studio in 2008:
“I’m trying to go back to a time when people actually used the preamps on the console,” laughed Auerbach. “The studio is really stripped down compared to a typical modern studio, but all of the essentials are covered by the very best analog gear in the world – Neumann mics, Pultec analog processors, Studer tape machines, that sort of thing. I needed a fully functional console that would fit into a small space and deliver a beautiful analog sound.”
Intentionally, or otherwise, the community aspect and technology of Muscle Shoals was referenced in this July 2009 interview with Dan:
“The great moments in music always seem to revolve around a certain scene; there were a handful of studios where musicians would create together,” he [Dan] remarks, when asked to elaborate on what drove him to construct a studio in his hometown. Clearly, he is intrigued by the idea of establishing an environment that encourages the sort of inspiration that commonly accompanies like-minded musicians coming together. Auerbach is consciously invoking the impetus behind some of the more fruitful collaborations, what might be called happy accidents, in rock history. Virtually all the stories involving Abbey Road, or Electric Lady Studios and, of course, Muscle Shoals, involve interaction amongst the assembled musicians.
The Black Keys have always prided themselves on coming from Akron, OH, making real music, engineering it (mostly) themselves and defining their sound whilst acknowledging their influences and peers. As Pat noted in this October 2009 interview, this isn’t always the case in music today, though it was in places like Muscle Shoals:
There used to be some amazing regional record labels, but that all dried up. But the same talent pool is there—just no one is there to discover it. It’s the same thing with Muscle Shoals—there are talented people everywhere. I do believe that music is genetic—it’s a family thing. Whatever was magical about Muscle Shoals is still there, it’s just no one fucking cares anymore. Music now is just pop music, made by motherfuckers like Bob Rock. Motherfuckers that have wrap-around Sub Zeros and dreadlocks and a crazy ass Kurzweil keyboard. People just don’t get it.
The scene then is set.
The Black Keys apparently recorded 15 songs in 10 days in August 2009 at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and was produced by Mark Neill of Soil of the South and Toe Rag studios fame. The band always work fast and the recording was scheduled in between Black Keys festival gigs and Dan and Pat’s respective side projects touring. I dare say we are going to be hearing a lot more about the recording and of this new album and the influence of Muscle Shoals on it in the months ahead of the new album’s release. The new Black Keys album will be out on May 18, 2010.
For more info about Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, be sure to listen to the excellent Alabama Public Radio reports on the studio here.
The front of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio:
Inside Muscle Shoals Sound Studio:
Photos courtesy of Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel