The Black Keys – Rubber Factory

Rubber Factory (2004)

A+

1. When The Lights Go Out 2. 10 A.M. Automatic 3. Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down 4. All Hands Against His Own 5. The Desperate Man 6. Girl Is On My Mind 7. The Lengths 8. Grown So Ugly 9. Stack Shot Billy 10. Act Nice And Gentle 11. Aeroplane Blues 12. Keep Me 13. Till I Get My Way

 

The quantum leap these guys have made since the last album is pretty evident by about 10 seconds into this thing. In fact, the shift is pretty goddamned disorienting. We start out with some big, booming drums, then a spooky riff (played on acoustic guitar, for the first time) comes in accompanied by some weird ass droney sound in the right speaker that sounds like a cross between a B3 and a demon fiddle. “You’ll know what the sun’s all about when the lights go out…” just what the hell is going on here? This song sounds positively 2004! Where did all that retro shit go?!? And why the hell are they playing a gorgeous acoustic ballad with pretty slide guitar of the melodic Duane Allman variety rather than the gutbucket rusty knife ‘n shot glass 30’s juke joint variety (“The Lengths”)?!? How fucking come?? Who put this bottle of wine on my desk? Why doesn’t Marcus Bachmann just admit he loves cock?? Why do I lose so many freaking pens all the time?!? Huh?? Answer me!!

The answer to many of these questions comes hard and fast in the form of “10 A.M. Automatic,” which is as fine a 3-minute rock song as there ever was. It’s the sound of a V8 engine in musical form, roaring down an empty stretch of highway at 150 miles an hour. And then the clincher at the end – a brain-buzzing guitar solo that sounds as if it could swallow your eardrums whole. I think the song is supposed to have some sort of vague anti-drug message, though I don’t think Dan has ever spent much time on his lyrics… still, I guess, don’t let the beard fool you – maybe he’s not as big of a stoner as he looks.

“Automatic” also crystallizes what Rubber Factory is nice and early on in the sequence – that being, a motherfucking rock ‘n roll record. For the first time, Dan and Pat aren’t derivatively recalling specific eras of blues-based electric guitar music so much as taking the tricks that worked for Muddy in ’53 or the Stones in ’68 or (insert your favorite era of rock here) and transferring them into something that works for the Black Keys in ’04, and it ends up sounding much more timeless than retro. This is straight ahead rock ‘n roll in its purest form that could come from any era. And they actually recorded it in the old abandoned rubber factory in Akron on an old abandoned mixing board they found… talk about buying local. There are at least two guitars running through just about every song here, which contributes to a more full band feel and affords these songs some extra body and texture, which they thoroughly deserve (still no bass, though. It’ll come). Whether by some deft usage of the wah-wah on “Stack Shot Billy,” just about the bluesiest thing here and a worthy spin-off to the endlessly covered Stack-O-Lee saga, some extra fuzz on one of their most fun little jams, “Till I Get My Way” (an effect that does, admittedly, take the song to a mid-60’s “acid rock” type place or whatever), or just some well-placed lead overdubs, Dan is in fourth gear all the way, and puts everything just where it needs to be.

I don’t think this is their “classic rock” record – it simply can’t be hemmed in to one specific era or sound. If they did one of those, it’s the next one. But they do a couple 60’s covers… a nice breezy take on the Kinks’ Something Else-era flop single “Act Nice And Gentle,” which reveals that ol’ X-Ray may have had just as much blues influence in him than all those other Brit invasion guys. That replacing words with guitar thing that Dan does on a few lines is an age-old blues trick, ya know, and it fits the song like a glove. They also do Captain Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly” to supply a short blast of raw, fucked up energy in the middle of the album… it works, even if it’s a little rough and gross, through I suppose that’s the point. They’ve done like five Beefheart covers live and this isn’t even the best one.

But the main show here are Dan’s songs, and all it takes is the very subtle layering he uses here to make the riffs shine, whether they’re slow and snaky (“The Desperate Man”) or nice ‘n chunky like I like ‘em (“Girl Is On My Mind,” which you may have heard in about 38 different commercials). You (OK, maybe not “you,” specifically, but “somebody”… unless you’re an asshole like that, in which case I am talking to you, dick) may take issue with me breaking out the big A+ prize here when there are a couple moments of comparative filler at the end, but I maintain that they’re better than mostly anything on Thickfreakness and I’m sticking to my guns. I have some emotional attachment to this album, too – it was one of the first records I got back as a high school underclassman as I was beginning to realize that, even in a world ruled by 50 Cent and Creed, there was, in fact, good music made after 1972. Rubber Factory stands among of the best of it.



One Comment

  1. Ben wrote:

    Having never really cared for The Big Come Up or Thickfreakness, I had pretty low expectations for this album. I agree with most of the stuff you said here, but I’d give this a B+ or so, and I don’t really like “Girl is on my mind”. I also have an emotional attatchment to this album: driving through a torrential thunderstorm and more or less fearing for my life while playing certain songs from here.

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