How much otherworldly noise can two guys make? Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach -- better known as the gutterstomp blues duo the Black Keys -- have the answer to this (not quite) Zen riddle: plenty. Armed only with Carney's drum kit and Auerbach's fuzzed-out guitar and scratchy howl of a voice, the Black Keys have turned in a baker's dozen of sludgy (in a good way), funky, primordial blues numbers with their third album, Rubber Factory.
So, yes, Rubber Factory was actually recorded in a rubber factory in the boys' neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. And while the obvious remark to make here is to compare Auerbach's guttural vocals to slow-moving molten rubber, it's equally apropos to note how the run-down factory-cum-studio informs the Black Keys' songs. Sonically, the album just sounds enormous: opener "When the Lights Go Out" lumbers like Godzilla somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in the Mississippi Delta, while the album's first single, "10 A.M. Automatic" could fill an empty airplane hangar.
Their sound is no more polished than the tracks were on their last album, the also-great thickfreakness, but there's an air of stronger confidence on Rubber Factory. For all of their scruffy, lo-fi, DIY-aesthetic rocking, Carney and Auerbach sound arena-ready. Auerbach calls to ear fellow white-boy blues singers like Kenny Wayne Shepherd's vocalist Noah Hunt and Bad Company's Paul Rodgers on tunes like "10 A.M. Automatic" and "All Hands Against His Own", respectively. If you hadn't realized it already, Rubber Factory clearly outlines the fact that Texas blues (Shepherd), British blues (Bad Company) and gutterblues (the Black Keys) all draw from the same blues well.
But back to the factory's influence. Stomps like "The Desperate Man", "Airplane Blues" and even the haunting steel pedal ballad "The Lengths", bespeak a weight of the world that must have fallen on those who once worked in the factory. Credit Auerbach for evolving into one of the genre's finest lyricists. He doesn't try anything fancy (think Jack White singing about acetaminophen), but he knows the value of following the formulae of his predecessors. You'd be forgiven for thinking that lyrics such as "The girl is on my mind / I try to ignore, try to unwind / But she is on my mind" (from, uh, "The Girl is On My Mind") were written 80 years ago. Hell, just because he can, Auerbach tosses in an old-school murder ballad ("Stack Shot Billy"). Given the age-old feel of Auerbach's compositions, it's no surprise then, that Rubber Factory's two cover, "Grown So Ugly" and the Kinks' "Act Nice and Gentle" fit right in with the rest of the album. On the former, Auerbach coaxes a primal howl out of his guitar as he recounts running into an old flame who doesn't recognize him because of the titular affliction. (If that's not a bluesworthy lament, I don't know what is.) And the boys clean up their act on the Kinks cover, turning in a loping, warm, alt-countryish tune. (Add the Black Keys to the growing list of garage/blues-centric artists who recognize the influence of Ray Davies [see also Holly Golightly].)
Critical praise has been showered on Rubber Factory and deservedly so. Auerbach and Carney are smart musicians who understand and love the blues to the point where they've internalized it and made it something all their own while still honoring their forebears. And if that's too heavy a reason for you, take heart in the fact that Rubber Factory is a fun album: After all, one sings the blues to chase the blues away.