The Black Keys

Rubber Factory

(Fat Possum; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 22 September 2004

Dirty pleasures are often the most fun and, in the long run, least damaging. As a D.C. resident I feel I can attest to this especially well. We just had our latest round of elections this Tuesday, and seem to have elected Marion Barry to the city council. This is a man who, as mayor of D.C., was caught by the FBI smoking crack and forced to resign. He made a comeback four years later and served another term as mayor before stepping down in 1999. Now, we are in the throes of yet another Barry comeback. Clearly, if crack-smoking is not enough to keep someone from being elected to the mayoralty of the nation’s capital, a bit of fluff rock n’ roll can’t be that dangerous.

Fluff rock n’ roll is precisely what I considered the Black Keys. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about it, and the clear connection between crack rock and rock music (Pete Doherty will tell you all about it, if you wouldn’t mind sparing a dollar, man) is not meant to offend either the fluff-rock lovers or crack-smokers in our readership. I merely introduce the concept to forward the notion that the Black Keys, with Rubber Factory, have outgrown the generalization and should no longer be kept in that dark, nasty closet of dirty pleasures (the less said about that closet the better, really).

Breaking the shtick feel of Thickfreakness, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach deliver a much more consistent and musically varied album with Rubber Factory, yet don’t sacrifice the guitar rock that made their previous two albums so much fun. The first, striking change is that Auerbach’s skill as a singer and songwriter has progressed significantly since Thickfreakness. His lyrics go beyond simple blues rehashing, and the range and versatility of his voice have never been more evident, especially on the fantastic “The Lengths” and lead single “10 A.M. Automatic.”

The morose opener, which is reminiscent of older material from the band, leads nicely to “10 A.M. Automatic.” This track is probably going to be pretty hard to avoid on the college circuit in the next couple months, but it has the benefit of being one of those songs that genuinely benefits from repeated listens. Auerbach’s filthy guitar line rides on Carney’s solid drum line as he belts out the absolute gem of, “what about the night/makes you change/from sweet to deranged.” “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” isn’t especially distinguished, but the catchy “All Hands Against His Own” pulls its weight. Auerbach’s voice is all over the place, going from a low growl to disinterested tenor to high-pitched shriek.

The sexy/dangerous “The Desperate Man” grooves well between quiet blues moans and guitar squalls, complete with the obligatory solo. “Girl is on My Mind” finishes off the first half of the record on a convincingly rock n’ roll note, but “The Lengths” blows it, and most of the rest of the album, out of the water. A quietly beautiful ballad, Auerbach’s voice matches the caliber of the lyrics and is absolutely heart-wrenching. The great third verse ends with “coals are hot to walk across without your shoes/but in the end you’ve got nothin’ to lose,” and sets Auerbach apart from the horde of second-rate blues revivalists. The song is a huge venture from their standard territory, and the Keys prove themselves as more-than-adequate for the task.

It, of course, helps the album that they then follow it up with the second-best track on the album, a cover of legendary blues-man Robert Pete William’s “Grown so Ugly.” The songs starts with a very Thickfreakness guitar line, but as the Keys hit mid-song the guitar line loses some of it’s ferocity, and Auerbach delivers two or three great lines before absolutely ripping into the track again. The album’s other cover, the Kink’s “Act So Nice and Gentle,” gets spun through the Keys' filthy blues machine and comes out a bit less sparkling, but still showing that Ray Davies pop core. The heavy blues of “Keep Me” leads well into the classic rock sounding “Till I Get My Way.” Auerbach’s dual guitar lines balance out wonderfully against his uncaring delivery, finishing the album off strong.

All too often it seems you have to distinguish between the musicians who genuinely understand and agree with the philosophies of a genre and those who have just figured out how to play the chords and decide to rip off the greats. The Olivia Tremor Control were clearly psychedelic at heart, and their music garnered comparisons to that of the Beatles, Love, and the Beach Boys as a result of a common cause rather than music pilfering. Clearly, Pavement really was on the same page as the Fall, and Radiohead convey a paranoia similar to that of Pink Floyd. Of course, then there are always the Jet’s, Blink-182’s, and Von Bondies’ of the world, who seem to be more plundering than sharing in a legacy. With Rubber Factory the Black Keys have me convinced that they are firmly members of the former camp. As for Marion Barry, well, let’s just wait and see how much off a laughing stock D.C. becomes.