Riffs form the basis of the rock portion of rock and roll, and your ability to procure a good one can make or break you as a rock and roll songwriter. It’s even more imperative when your band is The Black Keys, since their brand of minimalist blues-rock (guitar and drums only) places the riffs front and center with only the barest rhythm section to back them up.
Fortunately, frontman Dan Auerbach has the gift of riff. He takes his guitar, plugs it into heavy overdrive, and drags it through the nastiest tire factories in Akron, Ohio. If you like your stuff loud and raw, this is your band.
Magic Potion is their fourth full-length and their first on a major label. The first three albums established that their sound was sufficiently full, and that the White Stripes aren’t the only proper band with just a guitar and drums. On this album, they concentrate on other matters, such as mood and feel.
The band is less concerned with rocking out and more concerned with sincerity; indeed, this is the first Keys album without a cover song (previous albums featured songs made famous by Junior Kimbrough, The Beatles, Captain Beefheart and The Kinks). The result is more toe-tapping than fist-pumping. It’s telling that when playing live recently, more tracks came from each of their prior albums than this one. While no Black Keys record will ever be mistaken for serene, this one is more of a record to hang out and listen to than one to, say, do demolition work to.
That’s not to say that the riffology isn’t on display here – witness the nasty, sultry stomp of “Your Touch” or the feedback-driven, call-and-response of “Modern Times.” On the other hand, this album contains a full-on ballad, “You’re the One,” as well as several songs that pull on the loud-QUIET-loud levers. While these songs may be more refined, they miss the unevenness and danger that made their earlier material so exciting. Magic Potion takes fewer chances.
On the other hand, it’s apparent that the songwriting has made significant progress – in particular, witness the wry observations of “Modern Times,” or the reflection on the American-Iraqi situation in “Goodbye Babylon.” Overall, if you’re already a fan of The Black Keys, you will enjoy Magic Potion; however, if you’re new to The Black Keys I’d personally recommend Rubber Factory or Thickfreakness as an introduction.
This is a band you need to see live. They’ve come a long way from their first tours backing up acts like Sleater-Kinney (the show where I first heard them) when they played hesitantly and had trouble filling dynamic space. At Lollapalooza this year, they blew away the sizable crowd with their impressive set. It’s hard to believe there are only two people on the stage. You won’t be disappointed.
The Black Keys – “Just Got To Be”
• The Black Keys – “The Lengths” from Rubber Factory.
• The Black Keys – “Thickfreakness” from Thickfreakness.