By David Browne
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:48 AM EDT
The Black Keys: Pieter M. Van Hattem

Rubber Factory

  • Music

(David Browne was so transfixed by the Black Key’s new album, he couldn’t decide how to start his review…)

TAKE 1 The Black Keys consist solely of a guitarist (Dan Auerbach) and a drummer (Patrick Carney). They record for an indie that specializes in all things unpolished. They’re from the Midwest. And that’s where comparisons to the White Stripes end. The Black Keys aren’t as flashy as Jack White, nor do they have his folklorist’s range. But on Rubber Factory (out Sept. 7), they offer their own impossible-to-ignore alternative, on which the most primitive of thrash-about rock, the sincerest of blues, and the most completely unironic appreciation for the power of the riff converge.

TAKE 2 One steadfast rule of criticism (music or otherwise) is to approach your subject with an open mind, even when appraising an artist or genre that’s underwhelmed you before. Take, for instance, the Black Keys. Their first two discs, 2002’s ”The Big Come Up” and last year’s ”thickfreakness,” nailed the art of scruffy trash blues, but they were also undernourished and derivative. So I entered their third, ”Rubber Factory,” with due caution. What I heard was still familiar — a cobwebby back-porch dirge, ”When the Lights Go Out,” followed by a glorious caveman stomp, ”10 A.M. Automatic” — but shockingly well-done. Before I knew it, the Keys had bested not only themselves but just about everyone else in rock this year.

TAKE 3 Nearly halfway into this decade, every pop genre past, from garage to synth-pop to the eternally disreputable prog, has been brought back from the land of the dead. The only one left to revive was white blues, which hasn’t been relevant or good since the ’60s. But starting with the early Stripes albums, even that style has returned, and it’s been greased up further with the Black Keys’ mesmerizing third album, ”Rubber Factory.” It’s pretty nervy to take a crack at writing a bar-room murder ballad (”Stack Shot Billy”) as well as cover genuine blues (”Grown So Ugly”) and make it appear seamless and without affectation. Somewhere, George Thorogood is sobbing.

TAKE 4 ”What about the night makes you change/From sweet to deranged?” So snarls Dan Auerbach, the singing and guitar-playing half of the Black Keys. The same can be asked of his band and ”Rubber Factory,” a remarkable album on which fingerpicked Ohio-delta blues easily gives way to manic spurts of slide-guitar frenzy, where a country-laced version of a Kinks song (”Act Nice and Gentle”) shares space with a groggy shuffle (”The Desperate Man”). I’ve played ”Rubber Factory” on late-evening highway drives, and I’ve seen the band play on a sun-doused stage; either way, their music makes absolute sense.

TAKE 5 The third album from the Black Keys is called ”Rubber Factory” in honor of the deserted Akron, Ohio, manufacturing plant in which it was recorded. The title conjures a dank, mildewy, claustrophobic place, and the music takes you there as well. The Keys go in search of their own dark night of the soul, find it, and blast their way out of it with a fusion of junkyard-dog blues and songs that, with their roots in blustery old-school FM rock, dare to be uncool.

TAKE 6 ”Good band — sounds like Bad Company,” said my brother-in-law Dan as we were listening to ”Rubber Factory,” the third album from the Ohio duo the Black Keys. The remark was momentarily startling; until that point, I had taken ”Rubber Factory” as an example of subterranean savagery both crude (just guitar and drums) and crafted (those instruments lock into each other at every turn). But my relative had a point: Guitarist Dan Auerbach’s husky voice and the come-here-woman lyrics of songs like ”Till I Get My Way” did recall those of Paul Rodgers. And beneath the scuzz were guitar parts that, with more polish, could have been heard in long-ago arenas. And then it dawned on me: ”Rubber Factory” is indeed a lo-fi version of classic-rock boogie — done by utterly earnest indie-rock nerds, and done the right way.

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Rubber Factory

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