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The Black Keys - Magic Potion Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 February 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    5
sound:    7
released:    2006
label:    Nonesuch
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

Image“After taking this course, you’ll never enjoy another film again.” That’s what the professor of my film studies course said as an introduction, leaving a group of undergrads wondering what he could possibly mean. Now, years and countless films later, I finally understand that what he said wasn’t empty hyperbole. It’s true. The more you know about something, the more you become acquainted with the conventions and standards of a creative form, the more you’ll become aware of how you’re being manipulated by the artist. What once seemed like magic is revealed to be sleight of hand, and you notice every cliché, every formula, every overused motif. And that’s why the Black Keys’ Magic Potion just isn’t that impressive.

A blues-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys are one of the holdovers from the garage rock revival of ‘02, and their modus operandi is making the most out of a minimum of elements. As such, they have a far smaller margin of error than most bands, as any shortcomings in songwriting and arrangement are bound to be far more glaring than those of bands who are able to hide behind layers of texture and obfuscation. No doubt they’re skilled players to be able to pull it all off, and with Magic Potion they play with more subtlety and nuance than ever before. But though they do well within their self-imposed limitations, four albums into their career they are coming close to running out of new ways to make electric guitar and drums sound like something you’re excited to hear for the hundredth time. Magic Potion might be their last stop before the inevitable dead end. Long story short, if you’ve heard one Black Keys song, you’re pretty well acquainted with what they do. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach is the consummate garage blues minimalist. With a seemingly inexhaustible series of oversized, wickedly distorted riffs, he bends and twists notes around his un-ironic blues vocals, a master at controlling the shift from soft to loud. Drummer Pat Carney holds down the backbeat with decidedly straightforward kit work, always providing an appropriately understated complement to Auerbach’s slashing hooks. But where the White Stripes often use the same constituent parts to create a self-consciously retro-minded amalgam of American music from the past 50 years, the Black Keys are far more focused in scope. They are the blue collar antidote to every high-minded garage rock auteur who thinks that stripping something to its basic element inherently connotes integrity, like 14-year-old boys hearing the sound of guitar feedback for the first time. These are songs that bristle with raw energy and simple joy. But that doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything terribly interesting.

Laid out over the same basic template they’ve used on their other studio albums, Magic Potion is 11 tracks of epic rock riffage, with all the stops, starts and drum rolls that were perfected by a generation of bands looking to update the Delta blues for a new era. As before, these are songs that sound intuitively right on first listen, simply because a distorted, evil sounding riff still connects with the primal heart of every rock fan. But the closer you look at what they do, the less entrancing it becomes. Even though Auerbach displays a truly astounding ability to come up with memorable two-chord hooks and wickedly twisting riffs, the dynamics from song to song are so similar that much of the album fades into a blur. “Black Door” sounds like “Modern Times” which sounds pretty much the same as “Just a Litte Heat,” which sounds so much like Led Zeppelin’s “Little Loving Maid” that Auerbach should send Jimmy Page a royalty check. The formula is obvious: open with your best riff, hit the distortion pedal when the drums kick in with the rhythm, drop everything down a notch on the verses, before bringing everything back in on the chorus; play a few solos, break out the slide on a few tracks, and throw in a few less effusive soul songs for good measure. It’s simple, and for the most part, it works.

Anyone confused by the White Stripes’ most recent venture into piano, marimba, and Tin Pan Alley pop on Get Behind Me Satan need to look no further than albums like Magic Potion to know why such lateral moves are imperative. Taken individually, there just isn’t much below the surface of these songs. As a songwriter, Auerbach doesn’t stray far from writing songs about sexual desire and frustration, from the subtly desperate soul balladry of “The Flame” to the simmering “Elevator.” But there’s simply no mystery to what he’s doing, no particularly imaginative lyrical couplets, and nothing that requires a moment’s pause to consider. They may be authentic interpreters of the spirit of the electric Delta blues, but they often miss the mythology and excess inherent in that music. At the end of the day they’re only reanimating ghosts of a music whose bones have already been picked over. Granted, it’s a neat conjuring trick, but it’s a trick nonetheless.

In summary, there’s nothing particularly offensive about Magic Potion, and those who lust for nothing more than the primacy of the riff should find more than enough to love. Spend enough time with the stop-start riffs of “Goodbye Babylon” or heart murmur strut of “Strange Desire,” and you’ll find Auerbach’s vocabulary as a guitarist to be impressively large. That said, from start to finish, the formula is clear and the pace is predictable, leaving anyone waiting for a surprise sorely disappointed. As for me, I’ve seen this film before, and life’s too short to spend too much time with reruns.

Pushing the guitar and vocals to the fore, the production is suitably lo-fi and reverb-heavy, making each riff sound even more massive than it would otherwise. There are very few production tricks to be found, few overdubs, and very little separation between guitar and drums. As such, the two instruments in the mix are left to fight it out between themselves, with both sounding absolutely massive on most tracks. Taken down a notch, the more quiet songs can sound a bit murky and hollow, as if the empty space is ringing from the absence of loud guitars, but that is likely by design. Ultimately, this isn’t the kind of album that’s meant to be played on headphones. It’s designed to be played as loudly as possible.

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