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Black Keys Strike Mellow Gold on ‘Ohio Players’

For their 12th album, the Black Keys have reset their clock with a project they’d first considered almost 20 years ago. In the early 2000s, when Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were first hustling their way out of Akron, Ohio, they toured as an opener for Beck. They hit it off so well that the fledgling garage-rock duo and the alt-rock elder decided to make an album together sometime. In a sense, the excellent new Ohio Players is the long-ripening fruit of that idea. It’s the Keys’ most collaborative album, which is saying something for a band that has worked with everyone from classic-rock stars to rappers to Delta-blues worthies.

Beck appears on half of the album’s tracks, along with friends and peers like Noel Gallagher, indie-rap innovator Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, and superstar pop producer Greg Kurstin (who was Beck’s touring keyboard player back in the day). Opening track “This Is Nowhere” finds a perfect middle ground between the Keys’ deep-bottom Rust Belt boogie grind and the laid-back boom-bap Beck perfected on his 1996 classic, Odelay.

They keep the Nineties feels coming on the sterling Beck co-write “Beautiful People (Stay High),” with its euphorically baggy Happy Mondays/Primal Scream shuffle, as well as on “Paper Crown,” which features a lead vocal from Beck and a guest rap verse from Memphis hip-hop legend Juicy J of Three Six Mafia, evoking the utopian peak of alt-rock/hip-hop crossover. Elsewhere, “On the Game,” featuring a guitar solo and backing vocals from Gallagher, is an epic blast of Brit-pop holiness.

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The Keys say they wanted to re-create the feel of their “record hangs,” parties they’ve hosted in cities all over the world, where they spin classic 45s. Whether they set their retro-rock wayback machine to Memphis in the Sixties, the Midwest in the Seventies, or Manchester, England, and L.A. in the Nineties, it all flows together like a beautifully paced DJ set. That doesn’t mean the album simply defaults to creating a vibe; this is arguably the sharpest collection of songs the Keys have come up with. “Don’t Let Me Go” locks into a slinky chug, then lifts off toward falsetto-soul heaven. Gallagher appears again to throw down some Waterloo-sunburst guitar majesty on the soaring highlight “Only Love Matters.” If you’re looking for classic-Keys blues revivalism, there’s the gritty “Please Me Til I’m Satisfied,” and they deliver top-shelf crate digging with a sweet cover of the 1968 William Bell/Booker T. Jones soul standard “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”

In many ways, Ohio Players imagines what the Keys might have sounded like had they been born into the eclectic mid- to late-Nineties that Beck ruled rather than the minimalist rock-is-back early-2000s. It was a period when every genre — indie rock, hip-hop, trip-hop, rave, and exotica — melted into mellow gold. That era isn’t as mythic as the Mississippi Delta or a weed-fogged Seventies arena show. But it’s a little closer to Auerbach and Carney’s lived experience, and on Ohio Players, they’re at home in every groove.

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