September 16, 2004

Bouncing Off the Walls

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The setting: a spooky, cobwebby tire factory turned studio in where else but Akron, Ohio. The factory juts ominously into the smoggy middle-American sky. It is vacant except for two young people and a little bit of noise.

The characters: grungy college drop-outs and life-long Akron-ers Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, the former a skilled guitarist who happens to have both a knack for musical reinvention and an appreciation for classic blues-rock, the latter a hipster drummer signed onto a less-is-more attitude in all things, but especially in what he brings to his set.

The result, that noise from the rubber factory, is Rubber Factory, The Black Keys’ inspired third album. Since their four-star debut The Big Come Up, The Black Keys have been touring and writing frantically, honing their new-went-old sound. On the new album, the duo captures a familiar Hendrix-like sound and inflects it with those things that Dan and Pat are: small-town rockers gone terribly hip.

It’s more than audacious for a band to try for a sound that seems long ago perfected and nearly impossible to effectively recreate, a sound like classic rock, for example. On the new album, though, The Black Keys try for it: they aim at re-presenting a traditional blues-based rock to an unsuspecting audience. The album doesn’t copy this style directly — The Black Keys weren’t out to make the album they think Jimi never made — but Rubber Factory is unapologetic in making its influences heard.

The opener, “When the Lights Go Out,” for example, showcases Carney’s stripped-down, slowed-down drumming underneath Auerbach’s song-long soloing, which is repetitive but somehow irresistible. The song’s instrumentals are purely minimalist and hum along under Auerbach’s drowsy vocals. Auerbach sounds bored in his singing until he comes across the almost too insightful chorus, during which the instrumentals briefly pause for Auerbach to assert, “You know what the sun’s all about when the lights go out.” The lyric ends, and the drums lead the guitar back in unthinkingly, as though the striking phrase hadn’t been said. The song closes out in much the same way: it simply finishes itself, with no extra flare, show, or crescendo.

This first (and best) track introduces the album’s theme and seems to enact it right off the bat. Song after song on Rubber Factory is as unostentatious as “When the Lights Go Out.” “The Lengths,” for example, is a mellow ballad that displays the duo’s songwriting ability. It features a distant sliding guitar layered under Auerbach’s unobtrusive soloing that matches perfectly with the mood of the lyrics and the softness of his vocals. The song is entirely sweet and heartfelt, but still resists any schmaltz.

What the album is not is over-the-top. Nothing is overdone, overwrought, or over-produced. It retains a bare but still exciting feeling, a feeling that “real” rock n’ roll once mastered. It is uncanny how “real” or “old” or classic the new album sounds. What is more impressive, though, is that, for all of its reliance on its influences, Rubber Factory opposes straight imitation. Instead, it manufactures a quality that preserves its blues-rock heroes while all the time doing something (at least relatively) unique.

Archived article by Lynne Feeley
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer