The Black Keys, Brothers
By wes jakacki
May 25, 2010
Born out of the racial injustice of early 20th century America, the blues has become the purest and most revered form of expression in music. So who better to carry that torch for this generation than two white kids from Akron, Ohio? Wait ...
Yet, the Black Keys have done just that with bearded lead man Dan Auerbach diligently plugging away with his soulful vocals and patented reverb-soaked guitar and towering drummer Patrick Carney hammering on his equally reverb-soaked drums on what has now been a solid six album streak, not to mention a number of other releases and projects. Their latest album, Brothers, finds the garage blues duo producing themselves and taking their cues from rock and soul of the '60s and '70s with fantastic results on what is their most diverse record to date.
“Everlasting Light” opens the album, which is essentially T-Rex’s classic “Mambo Sun” with a gospel blues twist, followed by “Next Girl” which has a '70s psychedelic vibe with Auerbach channeling Hendrix’s forever-cool swagger. “Howlin’ For You” borrows the rhythm from Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2,” which supports the wildly distorted space guitar riff and rollicking vocals from Auerbach. Brothers was recorded in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where the likes Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett recorded some of their best work in the late '60s and early '70s, which explains the traces of sounds from that era.
The Keys also handled production duties minus lead single “Tighten Up,” which was produced by super producer and one half of both Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse, who also produced the enjoyably hazy trip of the Keys’ last release, Attack and Release. “Tighten Up” makes up for its lack of chorus in the catchiness of the opening whistles, array of percussion, Danger Mouse’s signature Hammond organ and the groovy guitar melody.
The Keys add a surprising dose of soul to their raw blues rock formula in “The Only One,” “Unknown Brother,” and “Never Give You Up.” “The Only One” finds the Keys as sweet and sentimental as ever, as Auerbach’s jumps up to falsetto over a misty musical backdrop. “Unknown Brother” has Auerbach’s guitar singing backup with its ascending and descending melodies, as Auerbach pays tribute to a life lost too soon: My baby‘s mother is pained / 'Cause your soul is in heaven / But your memory remains. The Black Keys shine bright in their rendition of soul icon Jerry Butler’s “Never Give You Up,” which is probably the farthest the duo has ever gotten from the blues, but the song is a slice of refreshing, blue-eyed soul.
While Brothers is more diverse than other Keys albums, the band remains steeped in the blues tradition. “She’s Long Gone” leads with a murky electric Delta blues riff as Auerbach sings of love lost through the imagery of Exodus, a topic highly covered in the blues. “Black Mud” continues the muddy Mississippi blues and serves as a fine instrumental journey over to the pleasant pastures of “The Only One." “The Go Getter” has Auerbach singing as an L.A. businessman who is caught in the rat race lifestyle, singing a classic blues lyric: I am the bluest of blues / Every day, a different way to lose.
The Black Keys have also always excelled at matching the music to the message. “Too Afraid To Love” sounds appropriately frightening, like a tour through a haunted mansion on a foggy night with Baroque harpsichord, lingering bass and Auerbach’s ghostly vocals. “Ten Cent Pistol” and “Sinister Kid” are classic Keys, with “Ten Cent Pistol” being reminiscent of live favorite “Stack Shot Billy” as the song opens with the guitar playing the chorus melody where Auerbach’s voice bends carefully with sparing percussive backing. “Sinister Kid” features the fattest and flyest bass line in the band’s catalog, as well as the beautiful backing of R&B singer Nicole Wray, who was also featured on the duo’s highly underrated blues and rap fusion project, Blakroc.
Considering the prolific output of the Akron twosome in the past five years—including a Dan Auerbach solo album, Patrick Carney’s new band (Drummer) and record label (Audio Eagle Records), and the Blakroc project (which included the likes of Mos Def, Ludacris, and RZA)—it is surprising that the duo remains so prolific in their songwriting and varied in their sound on Brothers. It seems every time people are ready to write the Black Keys off as nothing more than a solid blues rock duo, the Keys continue to change and leave an impression; Brothers may stand as their most lasting.