- Artist: The Black Keys
- Title: Magic Potion
- Released: 2006
- Format: CD/Digital Download
- Genre: Blues-Rock
- Beverage of Choice: Irish Breakfast Tea
Listening to the stripped-down, raw and sometimes blistering riffs Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney produced from a just-better-than-home basement studio in Akron, Ohio, you’d be forgiven for assuming that they had a lot of help from the record company to get the sound so distinctly, well, perfect. The acoustics on this album are great simply because it is so raw and under-produced. The previous three albums are some of my favorite collections of low-fi blues-based rock music but Magic Potion stands out because, although The Black Keys recorded and mixed on what they considered to be ‘crappy’ equipment, all the nuance, dynamics and immediacy that make music exciting can be found on this offering.
It’s also the first album they created that are all original compositions (heavily borrowing from the classic blues greats, of course, with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside chief among them) and the track listing just rolls along with effortless heaviness, syncopation and melody. Aurbach’s scorching guitar sound resolves neatly on every track while Carney’s drumming is simple, powerful and dynamic. I’ve seen The Black Keys in concert a handful of times, each time at a progressively larger venue and it was amazing the first time to see them in downtown LA in a club with an audience of around 500 in attendance; I was on the rail right in the center, could have reached out and touched them. Play Magic Potion loud on pretty much any system and you’ll get a sense of what seeing them in concert in the early 2000’s was like. The band themselves have gotten progressively ‘larger’, adding keyboards, multi-layers, tracked vocals etc. to their studio albums and have enjoyed great popularity since the release of their sixth album, Brothers.
Still, for me, Magic Potion hits the sweet spot between simply putting out good music and being a huge stadium band – it’s low-fi but not muddy, directly accessible but not unsophisticated and rocks hard on every track. The band are tight but leave space for the music to speak to the heart and mind; see if you can resist drumming along or nodding your head on “Your Touch“, “Modern Times” or “Give Your Heart Away“.
The album kicks off with a great big Zeppelinesque riff on “Just Got to Be” and your ears are dropped in the raging blues fire that marks this as arguably The B.K.’s finest hour (actually only around 43 minutes, it’s a shortish album). “Your Touch” kicks hard and was a best-selling single for them and showed up in the movie Zombieland. “You’re the One” slows down the pace, if not the intensity, and highlights Auerbach’s deft touch on guitar; not every song has to singe your eyebrows!
“Just a Little Heat” attempts to do just that, with another Led Zep groove and guitar sound, over-driven to the point of torture, howling and shredding nerves and ears. The verse settles down and then the guitar kicks back up to underscore the changing dynamics as well as the paranoid lyrics. The short slide solo is satisfying as a counterpoint to the riff – just a great blues-driven rock song.
“Give Your Heart Away“digs a groove into the vinyl a mile deep with Carney exploring more of his kit and laying down percussive landmines for Auerbach to explode. The riff is straightforward and powerful; again the duo leave so much space in the tempo the listening body can’t help but be drawn into he rhythm and start rocking out. “Strange Desire” is a slow burner with the distorted guitar and Dan’s voice in call and response worthy of inclusion on any ‘best of the blues’ collections; this track is more nuanced than the rest of the album and therefore possibly the most satisfying from a purely musical point of view.
“Modern Times” goes back to “massive riff” mode with Carney pounding the living daylights out of the kick and snare. The interplay between drums and guitar is superb on this track and the special ‘simpatico’ bond between the two musician’s is evident in spades. A quick reference to Zeppelin’s Custard Pie, which, in turn, references Shake Em on Down by Bukka White only accentuates the band’s legitimate grounding in the blues.
“The Flame” is another smoldering down-tempo track that emphasizes Auerbach’s ability to show restraint as well as rip-your-head-off power. “Goodbye Babylon” is another nuanced track with unusually political lyrics and a deceptively easy-listening mid-temp chorus that belies the intensity and sheer musicality of the song. Listen to this one a couple of times and you will start understanding how the duo jell together in a way that is inexplicable and special.
“Black Door” is another solid riff machine with Dan’s voice in a higher register in parts that are a foreshadowing of some of the later music on albums like Attack and Release and Brothers. The album closes with “Elevator” in pretty much the way it kicked off with guitar feedback and then a solid kick ‘n’ snare/blues riff with the band having as much fun as they possibly can in four minutes of basement-produced fuzz-box distortion.
Lo-fi never sounded so hi-fi as on this great album that is timeless in it’s creative prowess, musical sensibility, performance artistry and intensity of delivery. I’m going to see The Black Keys in concert again one day but maybe I’ll wait until they start playing small clubs again so that I can wax nostalgic over the days before they found huge fame and fortune and stuck to the basics of producing down ‘n’ dirty, satisfying and exciting rock albums.