It’s surprising when you realize that this is fourth album from the Black Keys, the Akron, Ohio tandem of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. It seems like it was yesterday that they were the next big thing or the next buzz or the next two-man band that would take everyone by storm. And they really haven’t disappointed anyone who had those lofty expectations. However, the Black Keys continue to go down the only road they’ve ever known, and that is one filled with bluesy bumps, rocky ridges, and soul-saturated potholes that you can’t really get sick of. You just can’t. And don’t let the album cover fool you, this isn’t any sort of homage to Cat Stevens. There’s no Buddha and no frickin’ chocolate box to be found.
Barren, fierce, and primal are three words that come to mind listening to the opening moments of Magic Potion. The drums-and-guitar bluesy boogie oozing out of “Just Got to Be” reeks of the early to late British blues rock outfits. It’s not a jaw-dropping hellish opener, but one that seems to let the listener cozy up to instantly. Part early Zeppelin and with a vocal that could date back to Robert Johnson and the Delta, the song just got to be given your attention. The comparisons to a certain Meg and Jack have been in abundance since the Black Keys started, but whereas the White Stripes seem to go for big rock bombast, the Black Keys rely on a steady, surefire groove that hits you in the gut. This is exemplified on “Your Touch”, the first single, which sounds like Paul Rodgers fronting the Yardbirds and has no large guitar solos, although if you listen closely and repeatedly enough you might start hallucinating and think it’s a response to “Seven Nation Army”. This Rodgers comparison also comes to the fore later on in the album with the slow, soulful, and tender “The Flame”.
Throughout the record, the Black Keys don’t rock the boat much with their style, just continuing to hone it and make it all come together. “You’re the One” has a slow, wistful, Beggars Banquet-like feel to it as Carney and Auerbach seem in no hurry to finish the song or pick up the pace. It’s as if they’ve nailed the perfect slow dance number for the summer school prom. From there, they turn up the amps a bit with the meaty, thick, dirty, seedy blues rock nugget “Just a Little Heat”, which comes off red hot. Again, if you listen to it enough, you might notice that the first couple of notes bring to mind Jimmy Page’s signature riff off “Heartbreaker”. But this is still riddled with the blues and is downplayed with excellent results. Halfway through, a delightful solo comes across with a bottleneck or slide guitar spree fleshing out the already strong number.
Although some people will be pissed off that the Black Keys haven’t expanded on their sound by adding a bassist, a keyboardist, or zither player, Auerbach and Carney have not strayed from the plot they started with The Big Come Up. They throw a slight curve with “Give Your Heart Away”, which has a murky side but also some subtle psychedelic textures added temporarily. The first track that doesn’t get your proverbial goad is the slow and somewhat challenging “Strange Desire” that is, well, strange. Taking a while to get into the song, it then heads down a dreary, dark lane courtesy of Auerbach’s guitar picking. It’s the lone aberration on the record as the Black Keys get back to basics with “Modern Times”, which sounds like it was pleading to be released decades before Pro Tools became associated with music and not construction workers.
Often, 10 songs in, bands feel like they can mail in the last two or three songs, but the Black Keys aren’t like many bands. “Black Door” might be the cream of a very Grade A crop of numbers here, breaking out albeit slightly but still sticking to the blueprint. It’s a real surprise and could be placed lower in the sequence. Nonetheless, the Black Keys’ debut for a bigger label has them reaching a wide audience with a style that had them playing to half-filled clubs when they started off.
// Notes from the Road
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