THE BLACK KEYS: RUBBER FACTORY (2004)
1) When The Lights Go Out; 2) 10 A.M. Automatic; 3) Just Couldn't Tie Me Down; 4) All Hands Against His Own; 5) The Desperate Man; 6) Girl Is On My Mind; 7) The Lengths; 8) Grown So Ugly; 9) Stack Shot Billy; 10) Act Nice And Gentle; 11) Aeroplane Blues; 12) Keep Me; 13) Till I Get My Way.
After the expected «sophomore slump» of Thickfreakness, Auerbach and Carney retreat, regroup, and revitalize their act. If the first album mostly channelled the spirit of old Chicago bluesmen, and the second album mainly evoked the atmosphere of early 1970s «stoner hard rock», Rubber Factory works mainly as a subtle tribute to sung and unsung American heroes of the «twisted hard rock / blues rock» direction — everyone from the Stooges to early Captain Beefheart. All of a sudden, the chord changes get more interesting, the edges get jaggier, and the ride becomes bumpier. Putting it short: +10 in the excitement department.
Changes burst out at the very start, as 'When The Lights Go Out' opens the record with the usual percussion boom and an unexpected acoustic riff (with some shrill one-note electric wailing in the background). The call rings out: The Black Keys are not going to strictly adhere to AC/DC tactics. They are widening their base without losing the essence. They can be subtle and diversify their emotional range. 'When The Lights Go Out', for instance, introduces «tiredness» and perhaps even «depression», rarely, if ever, seen on the previous two albums because of all the testosterone. And now they can even be tender — as seen on the folky ballad 'The Lengths', on which Auerbach sounds like a cross between James Taylor and Eddie Vedder, but still manages to push the bar upwards rather than downwards due to a beautifully constructed set of slide guitar flourishes. It is a good thing there's only one song like that on the album, though — just the right number for a band whose main reason for existence is their guitar tone.
And their guitar riffs. This time, Danny took some of it to come up with a bunch of real quality tunes. 'Just Couldn't Tie Me Down' uses an archaic distortion effect, similar to the one used on early Burnette Brothers records, to come up with a cool, inescapable rock'n'roll melody — every time the guitar hits back after Auerbach's "Happiness... come around... just couldn't tie me down", there comes that classic rockabilly punch in the stomach, the little JERK that made it all worth your while. Cool riffs also inhabit such modern classics as 'All Hands Against His Own', 'The Desperate Man', and 'Grown So Ugly'. 'The Desperate Man', in particular, with its rough, screech-heavy key changes in between verses, is the closest The Black Keys step to the line that separates their sound from «ye olde avantgarde» — they never ever cross that line, but they titillate, and that's quite enough for me.
As song structures get more complex and stylistic influences more diverse, so does the band's choice of covers become more adequate, or, to be precise, more adequately expressed than it used to be. 'She Said She Said' was done well, but it stepped out of the overall paradigm of The Big Come Up. Not so with their current take on the Kinks' 'Act Nice And Gentle', which used to be light as a feather in all of its music-hall-ish-ness, but here, all dressed up in several overdubbed lo-fi guitar parts, mumbled and skipped vocals, and «genuinely faked sloppiness» that even the Davies brothers — no slouches at faking sloppiness themselves — would admire, it fits right in, even if it is still the friendliest and «laziest» number on the record, per the song's nature.
The band's openness to experimentation shines through in the most unpredictable places — such as a brief quotation from 'Rhapsody In Blue' in the middle of 'Girl Is On My Mind' — and I am pretty sure that, with their package of influences, you will be able to spot quotations and allusions in every song if you put your mind to it. (As I am typing this, the sound of 'Till I Get My Way' is blasting through the speakers and I am all ready to describe the song as «Status Quo's 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' meet Paul Rogers and Bad Company»). But the band's sound has further solidified into something instantly recognizable as the Black Keys and the Black Keys only.
So, Rubber Factory should be enough to satisfy the skeptics: the band has its own shape and style, and it is capable of processing just about everything through that style. If Gershwin, why not Mozart? If Mozart, why not Eric Dolphy? That's just the way it should be — a blues-rock heart, a garage soul, and a mind open to every other influence. Thumbs up.
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