Clinic is a band from Liverpool that plays noisy punk-rock wearing scrubs and nurses’ masks. The Black Keys are two young white men from Akron, Ohio who play bluesy garage-rock — or garagey blues, depending on your perspective. After two LPs apiece, both bands have earned good press and loyal followings.
What do their new albums have in common? “Winchester Cathedral” and “Rubber Factory” both rigidly stick to the sound that propelled Clinic and the Keys, respectively, to semi-stardom (or late-night MTV2). But whereas the worst quality of “Factory” is its repetitiveness — a fault that is forgivable, especially considering the genre — “Cathedral” is a dramatically disappointing effort from a band that not long ago showed glimmering promise.
Over the summer, Clinic’s Web site posted a song-by-song description of the new album, written by “tape-operator” Erasmus Benedict (whose name and job both sound fabricated). In retrospect, the reports of exotic instrumentation, otherworldly songwriting and a “marked shift” in their sound seem almost comical. But most misleading of all is the notion that these songs could be distinguished, either from one another or from the band’s less-memorable earlier material. The album, almost the whole way through, is a loud, roaring, mess.
Thankfully, two songs stick out from the formulaic monotony. “Vertical Take Off In Egypt,” an instrumental, gushes with the drunken swagger of a good Pogues song. Even without lyrics it channels the snarl of Clinic’s exhilarating debut, “Internal Wrangler.” “Home,” the only song on the album without drums, evokes the beauty of the softer songs on “Wrangler,” like the gorgeous “Distortions” and “Goodnight Georgie.”
A few other songs, though not many, are noteworthy: the melodic “Anne,” the borderline-psychedelic “Falstaff,” and “The Magician,” which features a klezmer-like clarinet. Yet even these tracks sound like material the band has covered twice-over.
But the album’s problems aren’t just with songwriting. Ade Blackburn, who has one of the most interesting voices in punk-rock, is nearly unintelligible on half of the songs: Clinic’s ubiquitous reverb swallows his vocals whole. Drummer Carl Turney, who had been the wonderfully schizophrenic backbone of the band, is no better. The percussion lifelessly thumps and crashes the whole way through.
For a record that is just 35 minutes long, and is only Clinic’s third, “Winchester Cathedral” is depressingly dull and disappointingly flat. Instead of the vision and creativity that made their previous two LPs such interesting listens, the band panders to a narrow aesthetic that would please only a hardcore fan. They could have been contenders.
The new Black Keys album, “Rubber Factory,” follows on the heels of their breakthrough sophomore effort, the excellently-titled “Thickfreakness.” Their brand of garage blues has since become a mainstay of rock radio (see: the Kings of Leon, Jet, the Kills, etc.). The Keys themselves scored a hit last year with the catchy “Set You Free,” which seems to have set a precedent, and a good one at that, for the blues on “Rubber Factory.”
Indeed, the album follows steadfastly in the same vein as the band’s past work, though certainly not to the unbearable extent that “Cathedral” is guilty of. The record is sprinkled with enough character and charm to make it instantly likeable, especially if you can survive the handful of repetitive tracks. And the fact that the band doesn’t venture into any lands Led Zeppelin didn’t conquer in 1969 is no reason to dismiss them.
The other comparison the Black Keys will inevitably suffer is to the White Stripes. While Playboy magazine (which calls the new album “phat,” giving it three bunnies out of five) rejects the bands’ similarities, I certainly cannot think of any other white, guitar-player-and-drummer blues duos. Their band names are even similar, for Christ’s sake.
Perhaps Hef and I could agree that the Keys are like the Stripes, only with a better drummer and worse everything else. Jack White, after all, is a venerable guitar god, a songwriter and producer who has pushed his band’s sound into rarely explored places. The Keys’ singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach may not be the 17th-greatest guitarist according to Rolling Stone (try and guess who is), but he leads his band with the same fiery energy. His crunchy guitar and sweetly desperate vocals aren’t half bad, either.
What makes this album are a handful of songs that are blessed not only with Auerbach’s fine playing, but with his memorable melodies as well. He sings (and solos) damn near like Hendrix on “Girl Is On My Mind,” which would be a single if the record company knew what was good for it. On the song that follows, a sweet little ballad called “The Length,” he handles an acoustic slide with the poise of Duane Allman. His playing on “Act Nice and Gentle,” a cover of an old Kinks ditty, recalls Keith Richards at his most relaxed. On the album’s closer “Till I Get My Way,” his thick voice is outshone only by his thicker guitar.
The Black Keys owe their stripped-down rawness to their limited membership, but it’s certainly to the two musicians’ credit that they manage to create a sound that is as rich and likeable as it is. “Rubber Factory” might not have the glory of Zeppelin or the ingenuity of the White Stripes, but it is a damn fun listen.