When Neil Young decided to go back to his roots on Harvest, he found an old farmhouse to serve as inspiration for the recording. Similarly, The Black Keys find their muse in a less-than-likely place: an old rubber factory in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. The difference is that instead of simply getting in touch with the blues past they admire, the Keys mange to escape the derivative structures of rock, blues and independent music.
The duo configuration is increasingly less of a novelty and more of an asset for the Keys on Rubber Factory. While guitarist Dan Auerbach (and the Keys) can and does turn on a dime, it’s less a sign of virtuosity and more a result of the oneness between the two men. The space between his meaty riffs and soaring bends is amply dealt with by Pat Carney’s kit-unlike many groups who try the no-bassist configuration, nothing goes missing. Despite his youth, Auerbach sings and plays as if he’s channeling an elder statesman of the blues, his soulfulness only matched by his precision. His ability to sound authentic despite his race and youth is a feat all to itself.
Diversity, something not often associated with the blues, is another one of the band’s virtues. Country swagger on the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” (on which Auerbach takes a spin on both lap steel and fiddle), the Hendrix-ian wah on “Stack Shot Billy,” and the anthematic FM radio stomp of “10 A.M. Automatic” all take the record in unexpected directions. A lack of context turns Robert Pete Williams’ “Grown So Ugly” from a tale about prison into a strange and fascinating variation on the Rip Van Winkle legend.
Despite what you might think, the Keys refuse to let their guard down or dabble in anything less than serious: their conviction to their art form is refreshingly mature. The laundry list of accomplishments in such an unassuming package makes Rubber Factory one of the best listens of the year.