The Black Keys – Rubber Factory

I have a pretty hot/cold relationship with bands that are made up of just a guitarist and a drummer. I loved The White Stripes for a while, and I love The Black Keys currently, and The Polka-Dotted Lines doesn’t actually exist, but with all of them, I am slightly frustrated with a lack of bass guitar. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been playing the instrument for well over 10 years, but it seems to me that you need at least a good gut-bucket for recording rock music.

I will say The Black Keys have the most effective non-bass album out there so far, the wonderful Rubber Factory:

Where DID we put that factory?

The trick, of course, is to record multiple guitar tracks, some of which sound like bass, in order to get over this handicap. For this reason, many of the songs feature really chunky rhythm guitar parts, or guitars playing basslines, or the drums might be extra low, like in the opening track, a nice song called “When The Lights Go Out”.

In it, the floor tom (that is, the lowest-sounding drum that is usually off to the side of the drummer) is banged on at every beat, so the song is filled with enough low frequency that the blues guitar being played doesn’t sound all hopeless and alone. Overall, it’s kind of a slow way to start the album, but at least it gets the tone for the album going really effectively.

The next song, “10 A.M. Automatic”, is much faster and relies on that afore-mentioned chunky guitar for its full tone. Really, it’s about the fullest tone I’ve heard on a guitar-driven song, I believe this is achieved not only from using the type of guitar he does, but also from playing without a pick, which drops a lot of the tinny tones out of a guitar. By the end of the song, you’ve got about 5 such guitars assaulting you with their magnificence. Fun times!

Then we move along to “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down”, which features chunky guitars for the rhythm at first, and then uses a hammer-on kind of low guitar note where there should probably be a bass in the main chorus line. The lead guitar here plays a really cool melody though, so it’s a very solid song, as is the next song, “All Hands Against His Own”.

With “All Hands” we start with a main riff (that would work really well as a bassline) that kind of makes it an instant winner with me. Singing along with guitar melodies is something else I quite like, and that’s how the choruses go in this song. The drums are also extra splashy on the chorus, so yeah, this song is quite the hit.

One of my favorites, however, is “The Desperate Man”, which features, you guessed it, a bassline played by a mellow toned electric guitar. This one is a little more obvious than others, and in fact the effect is almost like the real thing, until we get to the bendy notes in the chorus (which always sounds like the “Cruella De Ville” song from Disney’s 101 Dalmations to me).

Then we come to “Girl Is On My Mind” which has more of a pop/funk feel to it, at least compared to the rest of the songs on the album. By this time in the album you might give up on any preconcieved notions that the singer was going to sing any words coherently or with any real dynamics. At least he’s not totally boring, otherwise this would be an indie band, instead it’s a band that is produced independently (which I think used to be called “indie” but now “indie” just means “alternative”). Either way, I love this song.

The album then takes a turn for the slow with “The Lengths”, which does strange things with my ears with its strange frequencies. I think the sound might be a little too colored or something, I honestly don’t have a technical explanation for it, but basically the tones of the song don’t make any sense until I turn it like all the way down. It features a pretty interesting slide guitar and basically a 2-chord progression that is finger-picked in a very old-Blues sounding way. What is the guy singing about? Who can even guess. Still, the song is good enough to where I never skip it, even if my favorite song is next.

Ahh, yes, “Grown So Ugly”, a song with mysteriously perfectly understandable lyrics despite being sung into some kind of distrotion thing. In listening to the lyrics, which make references to the 40’s and 60’s, you would either think the song was written by a poseur or maybe a cover of an actual blues song. To the surprise of nobody, the latter is true. The song was written by Robert Pete Williams, and is one of the very few songs that man ever wrote that don’t have to do with being in jail. The main draw of this song, however, is the wonderful rhythm structure, as it employs 9 beats between the vocal lines, which is REALLY weird for a blues song. The lyrics are wonderful, too, but then I say the same about any blues song that starts with “Woke up this morning”.

Another really fun song is “Stack Shot Billy”, which starts with some noodling and then singing the melody the noodling eventually becomes. Man what I wouldn’t give for a version of this song with a bass… ok I’ll stop now.

It’s unusual for an album to change direction towards the end, but it does a really good of preventing Late Album Slowdown, so I have to give “Act Nice And Gentle” some applause for that. It’s a blues tune in a major key ala Hot Tuna or something. It starts with a guitar effect that can be achieved by turning your guitar WAY up and then hammering notes while turning the volume knob on your guitar, which is what I call “Fake cello”, since Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore used to do that (and I think he even claimed to have invented it) and the result sounds a lot like a cello.

We then start winding the album down with an almost hard-rock sounding song called “Aeroplane Blues”. The intro to this song is one of my favorite intros, but soon gives way to a song that sounds a lot like a song we already heard on the album (but I can never be arsed to remember which one). Either way, it’s still solid.

It’s now time to revisit our old friend the slide for “Keep Me”, which blends slide playing with some really nice finger-picking and a really good sounding drum part. Seriously I don’t know what they did to the drums on this particular track, but I could just listen to the drum by itself and be just as happy. You shouldn’t do that, though, because the guitar part is also pretty great.

Finally, a weird delay effect guitar part opens up “Till I Get My Way”, which features really disparate guitar parts, in fact I could be wrong about the second instrument even being a guitar. It kind of sounds like a keyboard, it’s kind of in the background while the guitar plays the low frequency part. Well, no matter what it is, I can tell you what it’s not, which is a bass guitar. Funnily enough, I think the band actually has a bass player now, but unfortunately the songs aren’t nearly this good anymore, but that’s an album writeup for another day.

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