One spin through Rubber Factory, the third disc from Akron, Ohio’s Black Keys, reminded me of something a friend once said about Fugazi: “They’re the best band you’ve ever heard,” he said, about their live show. “For about five songs.” After which, he explained, they fold under the weight of trying to maintain their own intensity. That tattoo smile slowly peels off, and you’re left remembering those first few songs and quickly forgetting the rest.
I wouldn’t say the Black Keys are the best band I’ve ever heard, but the opening songs on Rubber Factory are pretty damn good. Taste the twangy riff on “When the Lights Go Out” that floats over Patrick Carney’s graveyard stomp. Or Dan Auerbach’s echoed power chords that fill “10 A.M. Automatic.” This segues nicely into the bluesy groove of “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down,” the best track here, and then the barnyard break-beat that drives “All Hands Against His Own.” White boys haven’t sounded this black since 8 Mile. We’re on a serious roll, people.
But by the fifth track, “The Desperate Man,” the crunchy guitars and distorted drum kicks that form the Keys’ musical backbone begin to wear out their welcome, and if this were a Fugazi show, I’d be checking for fire exits and admiring ceiling architecture. Things plod along from here, never worse but rarely any better.
There’s an undeniable sense of transparency around the time of “Stack Shot Billy,” the fifth-to-last track, with its predictable blues breakdown refrain, and sizzle begins giving substance a serious ass whooping. Constructive listening morphs into a rousing game of “Sounds like …,” with Jack White and Jon Spencer well in the lead.
One saving grace for the remainder of Rubber Factory is Auerbach’s unassuming vocal prowess. Yes, he does sound like the guy from Bad Company. But it works perfectly on the gentle — nay, romantic — ballad “The Lengths,” a sweet departure from the murky backdrop that’s used to shade in everything else.