The Black Keys – Magic Potion

Magic Potion (2006)

B-

1. Just Got To Be 2. Your Touch 3. You’re The One 4. Just A Little Heat 5. Give Your Heart Away 6. Strange Desire 7. Modern Times 8. The Flame 9. Goodbye Babylon 10. Black Door 11. Elevator

 

Well, the basement couldn’t hold them forever. And Magic Potion makes it clear as can be that Dan and Pat are finally ready to move out of mom’s place and rock the world like grown ups. Trouble is, they couldn’t afford to finish college after their Pell Grants got slashed to pay for tax cuts for Donald Trump, and in this economy it’s hard to find a job that would be an upgrade over manning the deep frier at KFC, so scraping enough cash together for an apartment that would fit a mattress, a bathroom and Patrick’s drum kit was looking to be a bit out of the realm of possibility… plus Pat’s mom’s chicken parmesan is delicious, and why give that up? So, uh, they stayed.

Yup, they kept with the basement budget thing even though it sounds as if that was the last thing they wanted to be doing. By this point they were probably sick of being pigeonholed as blues revivalists and/or White Stripes (and not “Shite Stripes,” as I originally typed) rip off artists. So Dan went and got himself an SG and wrote a bunch of riffs with arena rock aspirations, presumably hoping he could achieve a bigger, more radio-friendly sound while at the same time not alienating the band’s lo-fi-lovin’ fan base. The result, as is often the case with transition albums that straddle the past and the future without fully committing to either, is ultimately less than fully satisfying to either end of the spectrum.

So yeah (note to self: in the future, avoid starting consecutive paragraphs with “yup” and “so yeah”), Dan’s bone-raw guitar tone is gone, replaced by run of the mill classic rock distortion hounding. Which isn’t necessarily treasonous on its own… it’s just kind of difficult to sound convincing playing 3-chord overdriven garage rock songs like the Keys had dished out in the past when you sound like you’re trying to imitate Alex Lifeson or something. Thus, Auerbach overcompensates by coming up with riffs that seem as though he specifically designed them to say, “hey! Look how complex these riffs are! I’m a really good guitar player, huh? Can I have my super secret guitar god decoder ring now?” Well, the riffs are certainly dexterous, with their carefully constructed, extended structures, and from a purely technical perspective his playing sounds terrific, and it’s certainly advanced significantly in a short period of time. Trouble is, he didn’t bother developing said riffs into songs too much post-inception. “Rebel Rebel” notwithstanding, a riff alone does not a great song make (Yoda 5:80).

The new approach did yield the band’s first kinda sorta hit, “Your Touch,” easily the best song here. The riff is easy to play, it’s nice and catchy – just another solid hard and quick garage rock song from these guys. But in exchange for some airplay, the mix is sacrificed. Like I said in previous reviews that you probably didn’t read, at no point until now had any Black Keys song ever felt like it was missing something – they always seemed to somehow defy the reality of their limited manpower. But Magic Potion actually sounds like it’s being made by two guys with a guitar and a drum kit in an empty room. Nothing more. There’s a lot of empty space to be found in these songs just begging to be filled in, but Dan and Pat leave them be out of some misplaced sense of conservatism. Or, more likely, because of fan expectations, though after this it wouldn’t take them very long at all to say “fuck it” and do what they wanted.

Well, having become a fan between Rubber Factory and this one, I was all hyped up for this record and it didn’t quite meet my expectations, which had nothing to do with wanting them to make Thickfreakness 2: Superfreakness. I’m always in favor of bands evolving and doing new things; I’m the first to scoff at the legions of message boarders whose highest aspiration for their favorite band is, “dude they need 2 go back 2 ther 1st ablum that one’s my favrit.” I knew and hoped they’d change it up, and Dan and Pat apparently agreed – it’s obvious they didn’t want to be the same old Black Keys anymore. Otherwise almost every song here wouldn’t sound like a variation on Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” (yeah, that’s definitely a sweeping generalization, but I swear that song keeps popping into my head every time I listen to this thing. Robert Plant has gone on record as huge fan of these guys, which is hardly surprising, but hearing ’73 castrato Plant wailing on “Your Touch” is not especially high on my list of priorities). And while the riffs sound heavy and rockin’, they’re also ultimately circular – they don’t take me much of anywhere besides up and down the fret board over and over again. I think “Just Got To Be” and “Modern Times” display enough edge and aggression to warrant the bombast. Particularly the latter – that one’s a political song, if you can believe it. And a good one at that. It’s post-Katrina, shit’s fucked, Kanye West is the only guy making any sense and I’m going to unleash my fear, anger and frustration on my poor 6 string. Maybe I like that one because its seems to have a message and purpose, unlike many of these other tunes. Like, I’m just not all that impressed by stuff like “Just A Little Heat” or “Give Your Heart Away” – all loud and thudding and sorta directionless.

It’s fortunate that they end the album with a quirky pop song like “Elevator,” which cleans my palette a bit after how overbearing most of what precedes is. I mean, the album is still only 40 minutes long, so there’s not too many aimless jams or anything… though there are a couple. “Goodbye Babylon” is not only the least interesting song on the album but also, needlessly, the longest at nearly 6 minutes (ain’t it a bitch when that happens?). And “Strange Desire,” which starts off as a cool James Bond-ish rocker but then unfortunately drones on after the vocals end for 2 and a half minutes. And even with its mere 3 and a half minute running time, the riffless “Black Door” still wears out its welcome.

They do change it up with a couple of slow burning soul ballads, which point towards things to come… though without the instrumentation and production value of the next couple of records, they just sound like slow guitar songs. I do like “You’re The One,” though the version here is a somewhat pale take on a passionate song. I must’ve loved it when I saw them do it live in ’06, seeing as you can go to Youtube and hear me in the audience singing along to it very loudly and very off key.  When they go for a similar vibe with “The Flame,” though, it drags a bit.

True, there are no truly heinous mistakes on this record, other than perhaps letting “Goodbye Babylon” go on for as long as it does. But to me, this sounds like Dan and Pat hitting a wall without yet possessing the mettle to knock it down and reveal the new territory that lay beyond.



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