The Black Keys
f there’s a genre that’ll allow you to make the same record over and over, it’s the blues. It doesn’t take much—nab a nifty backstory (devils, crossroads, etc.) or a signature guitar lick and spin yourself to a long and fruitful career. It was working for the Black Keys: white dudes from the Midwest, playing the rock ‘n’ blues with juss tha two of ‘em. Suffering? They’ve got that tip locked down, too: Growing up suburban and Ohioan is like meeting your maker on a daily basis.
The duo’s last album, Rubber Factory, was their finest, as vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach turned to languid country-blues during “The Lengths” and even delivered the occasional memorable line throughout: “You’ll know what the sun’s all about / When the lights go out.”
But even at their best, the Black Keys always seemed one four-star review away from descending into self-serious, NPR-featured novelty hell—Look! These boys are playing the blues! Like John Lee Hooker! The second Auerbach gets self-conscious about his riff-making, shit is wrecked.
So arrives Magic Potion, written in some unnecessarily fancy font, a shiny big-time record label logo—Nonesuch—attached for the first time. Sometimes this sort of transition leads to bigger, greater things for a band, but Black Keys records are not—and should not—be about grand perfection. Monster riffs, a memorable line, maybe some good driving music. The world does not need their Electric Ladyland.
Predictably, the results are mixed. The Keys thankfully shied away from making a statement album, using drummer Patrick Carney’s basement instead of a big-bucks studio. Hendrix seems an appropriate touchstone: Auerbach has dialed up the complexity and character of his axe-wielding, biting into big, meaty lines that are starting to sound less like Stooges thump and more like Jimi’s spatial funk. A damn shame that the colossally sad slide-guitar piracy of “The Lengths” didn’t inspire more of Magic Potion: “You’re the One” Xeroxes the languid drawl, but the band plays it close to the vest otherwise.
The luster of this bland repetition is starting to erode, however. “Your Touch” robs the grave of one of the band’s better songs, “Have Love Will Travel,” stealing its chorus note for note, but leaving behind the original’s winking lyricism. What’s left is Auerbach shouting the song’s title over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal. “Goodbye Babylon” no doubt cops its title from 2004’s excellent pre-war religious music box set of the same title, which seems a little hackneyed, even for a band that erected its walls on cliché.
Always a wee bit more clever than anyone gave them credit for, the Keys are now a pretty good Zeppelin knockoff for the indie crowd, and little more. Their successful robbery of the blues had less to do with Auerbach’s axe and more to do with the mix of loverboy salvo, tongue-in-cheek humor, and delightfully pained vocals, which is much harder to pull of than simple pentatonic riff mimicry. All the surface elements are here—Auerbach’s gravel pipes, the studly rhythmic thump, the spotlight-making guitar—but the spark of a true blues spirit seems dimmer.