The Black Keys
Fat Possum / Epitaph
kron, OH: rubber capital of the world and the hometown of yours truly. An hour south of Cleveland, marred by defunct smokestacks, overgrown shipping yards and a canal filled with sludgy green carp, Akron inspires most of its residents to swig cheap beer and crank CCR. But in the course of a road trip to Mississippi (Big Come Up), a fourteen hour session in the basement of a downtown slum (Thickfreakness) and now—high-class by Akron standards—a set cut in a converted rubber factory (Rubber Factory), The Black Keys have officially shed the city’s Classic Rock façade, right? Okay, so perhaps townies, lost in the haze of their Rust Belt ganja, aren’t paying much attention, but the rest of the world sure is.
In their 2003 year-end wrap-up, Time Magazine ranked Thickfreakness the 3rd best album of the year. Radiohead lauded the duo during a BBC Radio interview and Beck asked them aboard a leg of his Sea Change tour. The result? This time around the group’s down-home album brims with wise, weary road songs.
Take “When the Lights Go Out” for example. Opening with dusky, stomp-along drumming and a relentless, Delta blues guitar riff, Dan Auerbach laments, “You can be / Oh, so mean”. There’s a woman behind all this, we learn, a woman who done Auerbach wrong, and no genre is filled with more mean women than the blues. “Stack Shot Billy”, also cut in the mold of the pure blues tradition, lays an antiquated guitar sound over forceful, rudimentary drumming. Lyrically, we find ourselves in the midst of drugs and violence. “Billy had himself an evil brain / Loved his gun and his sweet cocaine”.
But—and this is what makes The Black Keys’ sound so refreshing—the band avoids novelty status by weaving bits of psychedelic rock into their traditional blues tapestry, creating a hybrid that sounds at once novel and unforced. Listening to catchy single “10 A.M. Automatic” will give you a good sense of this. A gruff riff repeated? The blues. Warped, wailing guitar? psychedelic rock. Regretful break-up lyrics? The blues. The chainsaw guitar outro that convinced at least one reviewer that his car was falling apart? Jimi Hendrix.
Beyond his formidable guitar playing, Auerbach has mastered the art of crafting vocals that sound both really old and really good, but it’s on the more patient, earnest track “The Lengths” that he shows the most artistic growth. On this track, The Keys shirk their tried and true formula for a subtler, more reflective approach. One detects Beck’s influence on the band as Auerbach employs a bare, mournful moan. “Tell me what you were thinking,” he sings. “Treat somebody’s soul / The care he took / The lengths to which he goes / Calls her house / To walk across with / Out your shoes / In the end / Know that you have / Nothing to lose”. The words are given weight by burden and the slide guitar stings. This is Beck’s brand of blues—highly literate, yet still emotionally evocative. More than any other track on Rubber Factory, “The Lengths” lends us a sense of where The Keys might be heading.
Rubber Factory is not as consistent an offering as Thickfreakness. “The Desperate Man” employs the lackluster chorus “Hey, Hey / Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” and “Grown So Ugly” opens with a riff far too big and simple for these guys before evolving into a more subtle and interesting track. But make no mistake, the strengths here more than amend for the weaknesses. The Black Keys struck gold with Thickfreakness, successfully combining two disparate genres. On Rubber Factory they prove they’ve got the chops to turn the amalgamation into something new and distinctly their own.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK – SEPTEMBER 6 – SEPTEMBER 12, 2004
Reviewed by: R. S. Ross
Reviewed on: 2004-09-07