For Scene, a free weekly in Cleveland, the Black Keys drummer Pat Carney’s girlfriend wrote an article about her travels with the band during its 2004 world tour in support of Rubber Factory. The most memorable anecdote concerned her turning down coke from Conor Oberst, a story that’s indicative of Carney’s and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach’s work-to-play ratio. Since 2002’s self-released debut, The Big Come Up, they have released either an album or DVD every year, and sometimes an EP as well (the band’s Fat Possom farewell, the Chulahoma EP, was released in May).
Perhaps their work ethic — and their blues — comes from their origins in once industrial, now decayed, Akron, Ohio, and perhaps not (although Lebron James did come from the same place). But that ethic has helped them win critical and popular success, as well as a deal with intellectual- and world-music-friendly imprint Nonesuch.
Magic Potion, their Nonesuch debut, is perhaps evidence of their fatigue. "Just Got to Be" explosively opens the album with familiar Auerbach guitar, which strays wildly only to come to harmony with Carney’s equally wandering drums. The catchy riffs of "Your Touch" sustain the energy created at the open only to ease into the memorable yet slower sweetness of "You’re the One." Auerbach’s voice is soothingly reminiscent of My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James as he sings, "Now I’m old and wise/ when I see your eyes/ you’re the one I adore."
But the larger guitar sound of the fourth track, "Just a Little Heat," does little to rekindle what Magic Potion started. The remainder of the eleven-track album, while not repetitive, is nothing new. The quivering guitar stretches the album’s dynamics on "Give Your Heart Away," but Carney’s pounding drums fail to break the boundary into something special. "Black Door" and "Goodbye Babylon" are heavy, scratchy guitar-driven classic-rock tracks that may be heard coming out the windows of actual 1970s Akron rubber factories.
Nonesuch may allow Carney and Auerbach to separate themselves from blues purists and move onto fans who wish they were blues purists. I don’t believe they want that, but "Modern Times" treads surprisingly close to a sedate version of a White Stripes tune — an area that the Black Keys, I’d imagine, would want to avoid like the opaque waters of Akron’s rivers. For the Black Keys, perhaps magic potion is not coke or a fancy label or staying pure but rather what happens after a well-deserved rest.
Band (stream Magic Potion): http://www.theblackkeys.com/