A couple of former lawn care guys in their mid-20s, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, have somehow stumbled across the formula that combines Morphine's lyrical economy and mood with the American-bred musical sensibilities of Uncle Tupelo and its feuding offspring. On their third full-length, the Black Keys' performance sounds like it's coming from bluesmasters who've lived twice as long and seen three times as much.
Rubber Factory -- a title that references the former tire manufacturer's offices in which they lived and recorded the album, but which also calls to mind the songs' resilient, junky flavor -- is a raw, dirty blues and rock romp, with Dan Auerbach's gruff vocals slurring and slicing their way through stripped-down tales of heartache, bitterness and toughness.
From the hammer-and-anvil, drum-and-guitar plodding beginning of opener "When The Lights Go Out", we are thrust onto this gritty, dimly lit path. Among the watering holes of modern music, Black Keys is definitely a dive -- but it's a dive with a finely aged bottle of whiskey stashed under the bar. These songs are bitter brews, but they're easy on the ear and catchy in a worn-down, comfortingly familiar sort of way.
Rubber Factory covers a full spectrum of moods. "Just Couldn't Tie Me Down" and "All Hands Against His Own" display a rootsy infectiousness, with killer licks and melodies set against tales of solitary defiance. "The Desperate Man" and "Girl Is On My Mind" spill over with sultry "hey hey"s and fat bass lines. Meanwhile, "The Lengths" is a wistful, desperate song in which Auerbach utters the ultimatum "Hold me now / or never hold me again" against the whine of a steel guitar. The duo's cover of the Kinks' "Act Nice And Gentle" is a loping, twangy tribute.
The blues influences here are heavy -- "Grown So Ugly" is a cover of a song by bluesman Robert Pete Williams, also once covered by Captain Beefheart -- but modern rock flavors bubble to the surface as well. "10 A.M. Automatic" strongly evokes Wilco's "Monday", and there's a strong sense that Morphine's Cure For Pain was playing during some of the songwriting sessions.
Rubber Factory wasn't manufactured -- it was home-brewed in the winter-hardened soil of Akron, Ohio. This may be why The Black Keys have swagger without ego. They've lived the hardscrabble, up-from-your-bootstraps rock n' roll life, but they have no pretenses about saving rock music. Whether we let them do it is up to us.