Music Review: The Black Keys--Magic Potion

Music Review
The Black Keys--Magic Potion
Blues-rock duo
by Kodi McKinney, DJ at U92
kodimckinney@gmail.com

The blues generally gets looked upon as nothing more or less than American roots-music tradition. Though frequently revered, it is also rarely challenged or pushed into a newer definition. That's why it's often a good idea to mess with the source material.
Enter the Black Keys, a blues-rock duo who have not forgotten the blues half of their stylistic creed by any means. Their new album, Magic Potion, fuses the old Mississippi Delta history of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker with the fuzzy guitars of Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There's also an added element of garage rock, with simplistic production and a guitar-and-drums-based resemblance to the White Stripes at their heaviest.
The lyrics on Magic Potion are fairly basic, but few come to the blues expecting lyrical complexity as much as conviction. Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach is definitely not lacking the latter, and his voice finds the perfect blend of gutbucket abrasiveness and spine-tingling soul. As if to emphasize this point, there's not a lyric to be had within the album's liner notes. The real message here is in the blues, of which there is no short supply on this record.
The overall mix could have used slightly louder drums to counteract the missing bass; this wouldn't seem to be a problem, because drummer Patrick Carney seems to have a lot of John Bonham in his style and generally makes up for the volume. But on Magic Potion, the bare-bones production makes the lone track of rhythm guitar more powerful than many multi-tracked "walls of guitar" on major modern rock albums. In fact, every instrument on the album sounds heavier without the usual big studio clutter to take up space in your ears. This is probably why almost every song sounds so beautifully raw and powerful; it also adds more of a sense of place to Magic Potion, to the point that I felt as though I was standing in the middle of an old basement while the band played around me. That is not easily accomplished, but the lo-fi execution can be a double-edged sword; listen closely to "Goodbye Babylon," and you'll hear what appears to be an old doorbell ringing in the distance. Also, songs like "Your Touch" are downright tantalizing when you imagine what a full band might do with them. There's an occasional overdub when Auerbach takes a solo; otherwise, most of what you hear is just drums, guitar, and one voice. The final product is made infinitely spookier because of it.
Where a lot of blues records by other artists fail is in an overdose of the music's softer side. That is clearly not a problem for the Black Keys, who cram as much rock into their blues-rock as possible on every track. A great example of this is "Elevator," which could have been a snoozer but instead see-saws between softer chills and swirling psychedelic soul. Album opener "Just Got To Be" feels like an especially hard kick in the teeth, opening with sustained feedback and an obscenely heavy, twisting guitar riff. The only real misfire on the album is "You're The One," the only true soft song on Magic Potion. It feels half-finished and sounds like an overt attempt to cater to the quirky college radio crowd, complete with vocal harmony; it might have been much stronger had it been approached with more sincerity. Such a minor sin is totally forgivable when the rest of the album so quickly inspires you to clap and stomp along.
All the kick drum pounding and fuzz-drenched heaviness starts to run together after a while, but so what if it does? That doesn't mean it ever really gets old, especially when performed by a duo as exciting as Auerbach and Carney. It certainly doesn't stop Magic Potion from accomplishing a small blues-rock renaissance, the kind that could spark greater interest in the art form if only enough people would pay attention.
Rating: 4 out of 5