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The Black Keys: Hardly Retreads

On 'Rubber Factory,' the Indie Rockers Get High Mileage Out of Steel-Belted Blues

By James Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page C05

For nearly six decades now, in the saga of what fans of all ages and backgrounds still fondly call rock-and-roll, some band somewhere develops a reputation for being, uh, special. In the past, the agency of this renown, however momentary, was often a hit single, a television appearance or news from overseas. But more recently rock-and-roll has competed not only with its own mushrooming array of substyles but also with the gigantic hip-hop universe. Then there are electronic club music, pop American idols and their major-label recording contracts, not to mention sexy offerings outside music from movies, videos, computer games, fashion, sports and more. Even for the rare band with actual reserves of actual allure, the cool traffic has significantly picked up.

The Black Keys, two Akron, Ohio, natives in their twenties, seem oblivious to all of this. "Rubber Factory," their new album, capitalizes richly on whatever it exactly was that caused the rock-and-roll commentariat to adopt singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney in the first place as college-dropout makers of new indie-rock blues. The recognition began in earnest last year, when the Black Keys released "Thickfreakness," their second album; by the summer of that year, Auerbach and Carney found themselves opening concerts for none other than Beck, the acclaimed singer and songwriter who is also a mighty cool-hunter.


Patrick Carney, left, and Dan Auerbach make their points with passion and flash. (Pieter Van Hattem)

As with "Thickfreakness," which the Black Keys recorded in a basement at home, Auerbach and Carney didn't travel to a fancy studio to face a time clock ticking expensively away. Once again, they created these 13 songs in Akron, cooped up for a couple of months with equipment they installed in a rented former rubber factory. Apparently, given the album's name, the Black Keys found the experience satisfying.

Star producers, hot English mixers, bass players and Hollywood budgets, the Black Keys imply, are for other bands.

Independent-minded rock musicians with songs based in traditional U.S. blues aren't exactly unheard of. Beck himself sometimes has explored the territory, and more recently Detroit's White Stripes have dressed up the notion in loud red-and-white variations; when White Stripes honcho Jack White produced Loretta Lynn earlier this year, moreover, he was keen to record the Nashville legend fast, cheap, and not in a plush studio. But on "Rubber Factory" the Black Keys evince their own winning ways with both indie-rock methods and the blues.

On songs such as "All Hands Against His Own" and "When the Lights Go Out" Auerbach strings together feverish yet fluid series of riffs, melodies, rhythms and plain outbursts in ways that put the electric back into electrification; his idea of the blues is not historical, not pristine.

Doing "The Desperate Man," he and Carney operate out of a slower, spicier strut treated as a groove that they can slow wherever they like to interject bracing testimonies of melody, percussion or just pure sound.

Auerbach and Carney proceed as though the scruffiness of indie-rock is not just a bunch of remote boarding-school biases. For this duo, the tack offers a way to be creative with a gruffly sung sound akin to the look of junk cars on the streets of "Wayne's World." Similarly, on "10 a.m. Automatic" -- one of the year's liveliest tracks -- the Black Keys show how indie-rock blues can seriously jump, pop and funk around. The track is the high point of an album unwilling to remain mere ideas, unashamed to make its points with dispatch, passion and flash. It's the kind of thing that might get a band called cool.


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