Review Summary: The Black Keys fall flat on their faces with Nonesuch label debut "Magic Potion."
It was bound to happen sometime. The Black Keys had to lose their edge over the garage-rock scene eventually. After all, it’s a very rare band that creates even 3 consistently solid albums, and it’s an even rarer band that can accomplish that feat without ever changing their sound. The Black Keys, though keeping the same barroom blues rock sound, have lost the actual song quality needed to sustain an album with the release of Magic Potion
. Even the album cover art (not to mention the rather odd picture of a fried egg found on the inside) seems to let everyone know, “We stopped trying.”
The first thing that sounds rather off on the album is Dan Auerbach’s voice. It is constantly run through a heavy distortion-y effect and pushed to the far back of the mix. Not only is the vocal distortion obnoxious, it’s also pointless. Auerbach’s voice is full of gritty heart and soul without any effects, which just get in the way of his soulful, emotional delivery.
The next most obvious change from old Black Keys to Magic Potion
era Black Keys is that the guitar riffs, though bluesier and more creative than ever, were recorded in such a way that the guitar has almost no bottom, booming end. That’s not the ideal tone for a band that has no bass player. Of course, there are exceptions for rules, as on “Give Your Heart Away.” The guitar is just as creamy and distorted as it has been on previous albums, and there are no obvious vocal effects that take away from the song. Another issue is that the Black Keys normally somewhat complex blues rock formula has been extremely simplified on Magic Potion
, with most songs relying on just one or two parts to get themselves across, and one of the parts is usually not quite that good. In the end, it just doesn’t work. The only part of the Black Keys that has remained intact is Patrick Carney’s ferocious drumming, which, though not heavily technical or difficult, is played with such intensity and feeling that you can’t help but nod your head along with the beat.
The most aggravating thing about Magic Potion
is the fact that every song has one decidedly awesome part, most of which lie in the intros. They get you excited, making you think you're in for another Keys gem. However, as soon as the riff ends, an extremely dull and mundane section that consists of pointless noodling. will begin. It's ridiculous how many times this formula accurately describes a song. A perfect example is “Strange Desire,” which starts off with a 60’s garage rock inspired guitar chord stabbing riff that oozes "cool." Soon afterward, it leads into a sleep-inducing, mega-slow artsy blues jam section that continues till just about the end of the song.
Maybe it has something to do with their record label switch from Fat Possum to Nonesuch, or maybe they’re just running out of ideas that can stretch their standard blues-rock formula out enough to sound fresh and new all the time. Whatever it is, the Black Keys have lost most of the down to earth garage rock magic that made appearances throughout their past three albums. To regain it, they might have to change the little bit of their sound that differed in Magic Potion
back to the thick and heavy distortion and soulful blues goodness of previous efforts. Until then, the Black Keys are no longer the sort of music to play on a spirited, night on the town. Magic Potion
doesn't even really have a clear "single" song, like "10 A.M. Automatic" or "Set You Free." Almost everything that was good about the Black Keys is stripped away, and left as a skeleton of their former selves. If you're in the market for some ultra-simple, repetitive blues-rock, give Magic Potion
a shot. If you have any common sense, just pick up the rest of the Key's catalog for ideas as to how two-person blues rock should be done.
Give Your Heart Away