Getting ready to spin Rubber Factory for the first time, it’s hard not to wonder what The Black Keys could possibly do next. Having shredded the electric two-man gutbucket envelope with their past two flat-out scorching platters, and well-nigh raised the dearly departed soul of John Lee in Dan Auerbach’s blue-eyed groan (who’da thunk the Delta swamps of Akron, Ohio, could produce such blues demonry?), seems like they’ve got the roadhouse romp tied up pretty tight, right? Yeah, and then some.
Rather than make the same admittedly great album for a third time, Rubber Factory finds The Black Keys struggling to claim new ground without losing the harrowing core of menace and soul that animated their best past efforts. From the outset, Auerbach riffs on their standard delivery, offering up some tasty greasified dobro and squealy slide licks on “When the Lights Go Out,” a song that would completely work were it not for the fact that drummer Patrick Carney seems to fall behind even the tepid beat he initially establishes as his drumheads seemingly thud out of tune (or echo about the bathtub in which he seems to have mic’d them). Recorded in an abandoned tire factory, there’s a frequently satisfying low-end rumble to the album’s sound, but in some cases it has the unfortunate effect of calling added attention to Carney’s surprisingly limited bag of beats and a technique that can’t quite keep pace with his obvious better instincts. It’s a motif that recurs throughout the album.
Auerbach throws in just about everything he can muster to fill the tracks’ empty spaces by his dazzling lonesome, be it the backmasked solo on “10 A.M. Automatic” or the bold and agile steel-guitar chirps on “Act Nice and Gentle.” Occasionally Carney convincingly conjures up a fill or two to lend a hand or he at least drives the beat a little. Sadly, though, Auerbach often comes off as a one-man band plagued by a particularly rustic and erratic metronome, a hampered star awaiting more equal and intuitive collaboration.
Perhaps some of the problem may be the intrinsic limits of the duo format—there’s so much room to fill and only so many ways to color it. But then again, even a single guitarist with a dobro and a slide can sometimes work that kind of magic without need for such walloping volume. On Rubber Factory, The Black Keys alternately seem to be not enough of a band or perhaps too much of one.
For those new to The Black Keys, the overall effect remains arresting nonetheless. The vocals still sound nearly ethereal in their bluesy timelessness, and the atmosphere remains raw and unapologetically classic in attitude and ethos. What was great about the band before remains great throughout Rubber Factory. The problem is that having conquered this particular corner of the musical landscape, it’s time for the Black Keys to let their talent flow freely from the genre-determined pigeonhole they otherwise risk floundering in. All over Rubber Factory, Auerbach indicates he’s ready to cut loose and take his place in the larger pantheon of American music. Which can’t help but lead one to the regrettable conclusion that maybe it’s The Black Keys as a roots-duo concept that threatens to hold him back.