By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
On Rubber Factory, their third full-length in three years, the duo of guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney continue to add new musical and sonic elements to their fuzzed-out garage-blues foundation, including piano, percussion and acoustic and lap steel that can be picked out of their two-man din.
The album was recorded at Sentient Sound, better known to Akronites as the second floor of an abandoned General Tire Factory in east Akron, on an aging mixing board that once belonged to ‘80s rockers Loverboy. Carney gives the record a brokedown, ragged sound that sounds like the meters were always in the red, adding to the feeling of unvarnished spontaneity.
The album opener, When the Lights Go Out, lopes along with Carney pounding out a beat that sounds like a tribal war drum, while Auerbach’s acoustic guitar picks out a molasses-slow basic blues riff and his world-weary voice slurs lines such as “Don’t it hurt so bad / When you’re standing in the sun / In the bottom of your heart / You don’t love no one.”
Auerbach’s aged-beyond-his-25-years voice and guitar are still the focus, but Carney’s continued improvement behind the trap set allows the band to untether itself from simple 4/4 kick-snare-kick-snare beats and mix in some nice rhythmic variations and almost in-the-pocket grooves. On the album’s lead single, 10 a.m. Automatic, Carney switches up the rhythm for the chorus, giving the three-chord tune a nearly funky backbeat, and Auerbach dubs a heavy, wailing melodic guitar solo.
Auerbach’s playing is still unmistakably blues-based and he draws from his library of blues licks, but he also lays down a few solos that can’t be directly traced back to Lightnin’ Hopkins or any of his other influences, evidenced in the backward solo that spices up the minimalist Booker T & the MG’s-like groove on The Desperate Man. On its first two records the band covered favorites such as the Beatles and the Sonics, and a few tunes by Mississippi bluesman and Fat Possum labelmate Junior Kimbrough. For Rubber Factory, the Black Keys dig up a surprise in a country-tinged, lap-steel-laced stab at the Kinks’ Act Nice and Gentle, and a rugged start-stop version of Robert Pete Williams’ Grown So Ugly using Captain Beefheart’s version from his classic Safe as Milk as a blueprint.
Auerbach’s lyrics are mostly about standard blues subjects such as mean mistreatin’ mamas and guys at the end of their ropes. But on The Lengths he applies his laments (“Tell me where you’re going or what is going wrong / I felt you leavin’ before you’d even gone” he mumbles despondently) to the band’s first recorded ballad, showing the musical growth for which rock scribes so often pine.
After two critically well-received and relatively successful albums and obscene amounts of time spent on the road, Rubber Factory could prove to be a pivotal album for the Firestone grads. The garage rock surge with which the band was often lumped is waning, and the novelty of rock duos is wearing off; only a few of the bands in the genre will stay above underground status and the White Stripes already have a lock on the pole position.
But like the White Stripes, the Black Keys have continued to grow before our eyes and ears, and Rubber Factory is a strong step on an expanding musical path that should keep fans interested in which direction they step next.