Review Summary: A new chapter for one of rock's most consistent bands
The Black Keys have long existed in a world entirely their own. Over the course of six albums the Akron, Ohio duo have played their own brand of fuzzy, skuzzy blues that sounded as if Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney just decided to stop listening to any music released past 1964, and forget all that British Invasion ***. It’s a sound that has won them fairly consistent critical acclaim over the years and the kind of niche existence that many bands would kill for, but it’s also turned into a bit of a disadvantage for longtime fans – it became increasingly difficult to differentiate album from album or, worse, song from song. The input of producer Danger Mouse on 2008’s Attack & Release
helped by introducing various new elements into their sound, from doo-wop to R&B, but the heart and fire the band routinely brought on earlier records seemed to be lacking.
No longer. After a sizable (for their standards) break spent on various side projects, the Keys have returned with a record that takes those new influences from Attack & Release
and infuses it with the scorching, old school rock devout followers will recognize immediately. It’s surprising that Danger Mouse returns for only one track here, first single “Tighten Up,” and perhaps even more surprising that the song blows away near everything from Attack & Release
. It’s bouncy and funky, with a decidedly Motown feel courtesy of the producer, but is also a distinctively Black Keys-ian work – Auerbach spitting verses with the fire of a revivalist preacher, Carney providing iron-tight drum work, the chorus one of the best the Keys have put down in years. After a couple years spent doing things decidedly un-bluesy, it’s as if Auerbach and Carney returned with a newfound sense of purpose but also with a sense of loose adventure and bar band camaraderie, borne out of their own side projects and Danger Mouse’s valuable influence on their last record. It’s something not readily apparent when one listens to the straight-ahead, grimy rock that opens the record on “Everlasting Light,” but something that shines through as Brothers
It’s the vintage guitar sound and bass tone on “Howlin’ For You” that sounded so contrived on their last records sounding intensely natural here, like a Howlin’ Wolf time capsule; how “Ten Cent Pistol” toes the line between a smoldering roadside tale and a full-on guitar conflagration; the beautiful riff on “Unknown Brothers” framing one of the record’s most gorgeous melodies. This is definitely a Black Keys record, as one listen to barnburners like “Black Mud” and “Next Girl” makes clear, but it throws off the stale path the band had begun to wear down with ease, making a sound decades old sound fresh and renewed. A lot of the credit has to go to Auerbach, who confidently stakes his claim as one of indie rock’s most soulful singers throughout – his improved falsetto brings some much needed expression to lyrics that are often not as important as the feelings Auerbach’s vocal stylings bring forth.
Everything comes together on their cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Give You Up” (just one “gonna” away from an even better choice), where Auerbach’s fiery vocals make a standard torch song into an impassioned plea impossible to ignore. It helps that the fat horn fills and a lo-fi quality that makes it sound like the band recorded this on stage in a dive bar somewhere in the Georgia swamp all add to an essentially timeless aura. Perhaps it says something about the Black Keys that the best song on Brothers
is a cover, but it’s also fitting in its own way – after all, the Keys have always subsisted on the fruits of their musical ancestors, building on riffs and traditions that originated a half-century ago. You can still claim that they cop styles long past their expiration date, that their sound is a gimmick and/or played out, that they carry on for far too long (at 15 tracks, Brothers
does extend its welcome unnecessarily). But Brothers
marks for perhaps the first time in their career that the Black Keys may have opened the door on a new chapter, one that revolves more around the band’s refined songwriting, monster hooks, and growing grab bag of influences than on any one classic sound. If so, perhaps the Keys can go from being one of rock’s consistently great bands to one of its consistently best.