Album of the Week: Rubber Factory, The Black Keys

Let’s talk elements. Let’s talk guitar and drums and vocals. Let’s talk sludge. Let’s talk about Rubber Factory, one of the most primal albums in my collection.

This album sinks its teeth into you from the first of Pat Carney’s drum hits. It’s the same kind of doom and gloom drumming that makes the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” so effective: big, stark, simple. It’s on “10 A.M. Automatic,” though, that the zeitgeist of the album emerges—loud, dirty, honest songs. There’s nothing put on in Dan Auerbach’s vocals, nothing affected about his guitar playing.

The group tears through six songs that sound like they were recorded in someone’s toilet onto a Walkman. But there’s subtlety in these tracks too. “The Desperate Man” has greasy slide work and a proto-soul groove to it that cooks along endlessly, “All Hands Against His Own” has shadings of a mellow Iggy and the Stooges. It’s a savage, bare-bones boogie.

And then, in the middle of it all, “The Lengths.” This low-down, melancholy tune is quiet, intimate, and near-perfect. This is the true standout of the album and it hits on a completely different emotional level. Auerbach’s vocal swagger is reduced to a heartbroken pleading, and the slide guitar weeps in the background. The song is so effective because it’s a break from the scuzzy blues fury of the other 12 songs on the record, setting “The Lengths” off like a diamond in an engagement ring.

The album’s second half is more varied and more interesting than the first. The Keys’ dark and menacing spin on the classic blues story of Billy Lyons and Stack O’ Lee on “Stack Shot Billy” feels like Quentin Tarantino should have directed a music video for it. Carney’s drumbeat is my favorite part of the song—that is, until Auerbach’s distorted wah and slide solo comes in at 2:00 and blows the whole thing sky-high. From there, they go into a well-done country cover of a song by the Kinks (“Act Nice and Gentle”), and then put the pedal back down till the record stops.

With writing, the general advice is to strip prose down to its barest elements, which makes it stronger, more accessible, and allows the author’s voice to shine through. It’s the same approach here, and this simple album moves along with an irresistible energy, creating a powerful and visceral record. The lesson learned on Rubber Factory is that less really is more—something the Keys could stand to remember in their current Danger Mouse iteration.

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