The Black Keys – Rubber Factory

The Black Keys
Rubber Factory

After the success of their sophomore release, Thickfreakness, the Akron, Ohio Black Keys returned with the more sharper, more focused Rubber Factory. While still bastions of modern blues – whether they like it or not – this time out the duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach find a mellower groove in R&B and more straight-forward rock. Coupled with ever-increasing knowledge of recording and of course road-seasoned chops, the Black Keys’ sound here is much crisper and you can actually understand most of what Auerbach is singing about. Some might say this is the mark of the Black Keys maturing a bit, but I think it’s just a natural progression. While their first album The Big Come Up was primal blues and Thickfreakness was muddy blues, Rubber Factory is more like 70s style rock with blues influences.

Although the sound here seems less fuzzed-out than their previous efforts, Rubber Factory still has that organic quality which fans of the band love. True to their DIY spirit, Carney and Auerbach recorded on a 16-track deck in an old rubber factory. Since most of the songs were captured in just one take, there is still enough feedback and other noise to give the music a raw, unadulterated quality. The only thing the Keys did to enhance the recordings was to overdub an extra guitar or bass track here and there, which works well in some cases and distracts in others.

The album begins with “When the Lights Go Out,” which is a perfect piece of gritty, smoky, dive bar rock just tinged with a bit of hot desperation. The second track, “10 a.m. Automatic,” was Rubber Factory‘s first single, and the chunky, upbeat rhythm makes it entirely radio-ready. Well, at least in a perfect world where good music gets regularly played on the airwaves. “Girl is on My Mind,” “The Desperate Man,” and “Stack Shot Billy” are in a similar vein and really bring the 70s sound to the foreground as Carney and Auerbach channel the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

Unlike some tracks on their first two albums, the Black Keys really throw a few wrenches in the mix just to make sure you’re paying attention. There’s the surprisingly tender ballad “The Lengths” for which Dan Auerbach breaks out some beautiful slide guitar for a true country feel. The slide is applied to a cover of the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle,” taking it from a pop tune to honkytonk shuffler. Carney and Auerbach also cover a blues traditional, “Grown So Ugly,” which the duo turns into a thick rocking groove.

Rubber Factory shines so brightly because the Keys have really grown since their debut in 2002. With so many guitar and drum duos trying to play the blues these days, Carney and Auerbach have not only proved they have the skills, but they also have the staying power. Not only that, this album shows that these guys have plenty of room to expand stylistically while still absolutely owning blues rock.