So, The Black Keys, who I already kind-of liked, just made a rather good album. If you can only get one Black Keys CD, I’d recommend Attack & Release. If you can get two, add Rubber Factory, which manages to succeed in spite of a few cheezy blues-pandering moments like “Grown So Ugly.” I mean come on, the riff is great, but “she said ‘my man been gone since 1942’”? What the fuck, dude? There’s a lot of good stuff on there, though, but even it doesn’t measure up to the new joint, which is probably miles ahead of just about any other rock record out so far this year, though I could be forgetting something. If they play their cards right, it could be the thing that pulls them out from under the shadow of The White Stripes, who made it mainstreamishly hip to be a two-piece blues-rock band starting with “The” to the point that anyone else trying it is described by most folks as “doing the White Stripes kind of thing.”
Sure, initially it sounded like it was going to be a train wreck: The Black Keys were writing tunes on which Ike Turner was going to sing, to be produced by sonically hyperactive hip-hop guy Danger Mouse. The Ike part was potentially cool, but then he died before he got to lay down any tracks. Turns out that whatever Danger Mouse did ended up really tasteful, though. Like a good power-pop record, say Ken Stringfellow’s Touched for instance, the beauty is in the details, and by “details” is often meant the choice of auxiliary instrumentation. Danger Mouse’s ear for color came to good use, it would seem, and being out of the basement and into a real professional studio must have given the Keys room to experiment as well. Stick a banjo and a synth in the same song? Why not – and damned if it doesn’t work, on “Psychotic Girl.” As for the songs, in many places you can really feel the written-with-Ike-Turner-in-mind quality; the blues is still very present, but teamed with whatever “rhythm” is referred to in “rhythm & blues,” as commonly abbreviated as “R&B.” It makes sense really, since Dan Auerbach’s voice has always sounded like it wanted to go somewhere a bit smoother and more mature than what the band has been up to before this – the Paul Rodgers to Jack White’s Robert Plant, you might say.
While there are still the Keys’s signature fuzzed-out stompers like “I Got Mine,” the embarrassing worn-out blues tropes are thankfully reigned in, and instead we get a kind of blue-eyed soul record with dashes of rock and blues mixed in, often in the same track. “Lies” is a total blues-tinted soul ballad, while the second of two versions of “Remember When” ends up having a bit of a John Fogerty vibe. The album closes with a real hard drink-and-cry in “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be,” which is probably going to be a favorite song of mine for a while. Hopefully they can manage bring some utility players on the road to fill out the band with the bass lines and organs and horns and flutes and things, because this shit sounds jam. Should this record catch on, I think we’ll see the Black Keys emerge as something much more than just yet another two-piece blues-rock band starting with “The.”