The Black Keys

Magic Potion

(Nonesuch; 2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 September 2006

Lying somewhere in that netherworld between Chicago and New York, Akron is the proud home to roughly 200,000 Ohio-ites (Ed.: That’s Ohioans, motherfucker), the Akron Symphony Orchestra, and some of the best blues music being made these days. Half a decade and four albums into their career, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney--the Black Keys--continue to pump out stripped-bare, ruthlessly cold blues rock like few others are making in America these days. On Magic Potion, the band’s first record for Nonesuch, they continue their trek toward musical conservatism, edging ever closer to their source material and stripping away any superfluous influences. Though the album never reaches the heights of some of their earlier material, it’s nonetheless quite good.

It’s instructive, and a bit surprising, to listen to the band’s debut, The Big Come Up (2002), back to back with Magic Potion. For a band that’s playing in a genre of music that is generally recognizable for its stylistic immutability, the difference between the records is striking. Where Come Up was all big noise and heavy drums, Magic Potion is about space and simplicity. Sure, the guitar parts are still great, and the drums can be crushing at points, but Auerbach and Carney, over the course of their last few records, have been perfecting the art of squeezing more and more rock out of less actual noise. The drum parts on this album are, for the most part, more straightforward and simple than before; Auerbach’s guitar leaves more room for Carney (and the songs themselves) to operate. The blues they play here is far more traditional than anything on Come Up, and there’s certainly nothing like that album’s hip-hop experimentalism. >Rubber Factory (2004) saw them whittling even closer to this raw essence, but it was the Chulahoma EP (2006) of Junior Kimbrough covers from earlier this year that showed just how stripped down they could go.

This approach leads to a few truly head-turning moments on this record. Auerbach’s scorching introduction to “Just Got to Be” stands in perfect contrast to the controlled brutality of his guitar lines for the verses. The gorgeous “You’re the One,” while not quite matching Rubber Factory’s “The Lengths,” nonetheless lets the band slip into a quiet groove, with Auerbach’s beautifully-recorded vocals match the down-tempo guitar line to good effect. The album’s other quieter number, “The Flame,” lets Auerbach open up a bit more on a solo; still, the best moments of the track are when we’re left with just Carney’s persistent drum beat and the ringing chords echoing under Auerbach’s impassioned vocals.

But despite these individual strengths, and the thrill of watching these two continue their odd, inverted growth, I’ve found it hard to get too excited about Magic Potion. Past Black Keys releases have been nothing if not full of character: Thickfreakness was unabashed rock ‘n roll, Rubber Factory alternately vicious and forlorn, and the Chulahoma EP just lovingly brilliant. Magic Potion never really manages to distinguish itself as an album; there are a number of excellent songs, but even with quite a few listens I never get the idea of the thing working as a collective whole.

Part of this seems to stem from pacing and poor sequencing. One can argue that Rubber Factory suffered from a similar problem, but the highs on that album were considerably higher, and there was a natural pacing and logic that this album seems to lack. For instance, “Strange Desire” is undoubtedly a fine song--Auerbach’s guitar work is especially nice--but it languishes in the middle of the record between the dull “Give Your Heart Away” and the undistinguished “Modern Times.” Likewise, the album closes out with “Elevator,” which could have worked as either an opener or mid-album track, while the logical closer, the fantastic “Goodbye Babylon,” sits three-fourths of the way through the set.

These are somewhat minor concerns, I suppose, when you’re kicking out songs as good as these at a regular pace. It takes a swaggering brilliance to be able to write anything as good as “Your Touch” or “Black Door,” much less pull off the guitar magic to make it sound this good. We’ll see where the Black Keys go from here--there’s not much more minimal they can get without tearing apart at the seams--but hopefully next time there’ll be a greater focus on the album as a whole.