By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
Fans who have been following the Black Keys should be familiar with the West Akron duo’s modus operandi.
For three full-length releases, guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach has reached into his big bag o’ blues-rock riffs and consistently pulled out combinations of notes that get listeners’ heads nodding, with drummer Patrick Carney providing the lurching rhythmic foundation.
In five years, the pair of Firestone grads have seen their star rise.
They were a hot indie rock band, signed to Fat Possum, packing Akron rock club the Lime Spider; now they’re a hot rock band, signed to major label Nonesuch, packing Cleveland’s Agora, providing music for car and lingerie commercials, appearing on soundtracks for the film School of Rock and the TV show Rescue Me, and sharing big-league management with Metallica and Shania Twain.
Now with their fourth album, Magic Potion, released Tuesday on digital and three-dimensional store shelves, the band has embarked on their biggest tour yet, performing in 1,000-seat and larger theaters across the United States and already selling out shows in Europe, including an opening spot for Pearl Jam in the United Kingdom.
“It’s starting to feel more normal, even though I’m eating a $10 BLT,” Carney said from Los Angeles last week, a few hours before an in-store gig at the Amoeba.
“We’re both really happy with the record, and it’s exciting and nerve-racking because we’re hoping fans will like the record. But being in L.A. kind of puts us on edge, and having to deal with being reviewed by guys who hadn’t heard a record before they were 25 years old is kind of rough,” he said.
Most of those musically ignorant 25-year-olds should find something to like on Magic Potion.
Recorded in Carney’s West Akron basement, it begins with a familiar blues stomp, Just Got to Be, with Auerbach’s old-soul-in-a-young-Akronite’s-body wailing pushed up a little further in the mix. Potential single Your Touch comes next, giving fans the expected start-stop chord progressions and a catchy hook.
But just when it seems Magic Potion will be 11 songs of “standard” Black Keys, the ballad You’re the One finds Auerbach softly pledging his undying love over elegantly simple chords. And, despite his admitted apathy toward Led Zeppelin, the main riff of Just a Little Heat recalls Zep’s Heartbreaker and features one of the few solo blasts of Auerbach’s slide guitar.
“We had an idea for this record,” Carney said. “We wanted to simplify, condense and focus more, because Rubber Factory was more all over the place and this is more just a rock ‘n’ roll album. I think it’s much more subtle the way the songs fit together.”
In the middle third of the record, they do that very well. Strange Desire goes from punchy chords and a desperate sounding Auerbach (“I don’t wanna go to hell, but if I do it’ll be because of you,” he moans) to pummeling listeners with a big stoner-rock riff and a guitar breakdown coda with a nice overdubbed guitar solo.
Modern Times sports the best serpentine hard-rock riffs on the record. Then Auerbach opens his broken and bleeding heart on the torch ballad The Flame, which drones like a classic Junior Kimbrough tune. Goodbye Babylon finds Auerbach looking past matters of the heart and mean mistreatin’ mamas to a more global world view (“Our boys are falling, our leaders are all appalling, you can bet by God that good will is gone, goodbye Babylon.”)
Magic Potion finds the Black Keys sounding confident in their basic sound and their abilities. All rock bands that rely heavily on riffs (as opposed to chords) are in perpetual danger of cannibalizing themselves, and the Keys do come perilously close in the album’s early tunes.
But even those very familiar- sounding songs are catchy, and the musical devil is shaking his groove thing in the album’s details where the arrangements, Auerbach’s less mumbly but still powerful vocals, and the duo’s way with a sexy rockin’ crescendo and syncopated start-stop rhythms keeps everything moving forward.
“We wanted to make a record we wanted to listen to,” Carney said, summing up the Magic Potion creation process.
“This is my favorite record that we’ve made, and it’s Dan’s too, so it’s the best we can do. (Former label) Fat Possum’s motto is sort of ours, you know -- we’re trying our best.”