When it comes to playing the blues, naming an album Thickfreakness and releasing a Junior Kimbrough cover record isn’t going to save you from the glaring eye of critics still looking to tear down the Jon Spencers. And you certainly can’t play it too straight, lest you come off like some type of John Mayer, taking time off from your pop career to smear Stevie Ray Vaughan licks for the type of old dudes who still buy CDs. Akron, Ohio’s The Black Keys have dealt with the conundrum admirably, howling a mean kind of blues by way of garage rock, never getting too slick, and, most importantly, writing good songs.
But the stuff wasn’t wholly dynamic. While it earned the band a loyal audience, it was at times difficult to tell the songs or records apart. Though, 2008’s Attack & Release took a couple steps to get weird. Produced by Danger Mouse and featuring Marc Ribot, the record shook up the formula with some psych leanings and a dose of boogie rock. The band’s activity following the record showed the marks of two guys interested in not doing Black Keys: guitarist/singer/songwriter Dan Auerbach released a stylistically varied solo record and toured with Tex-Mex band Hacienda as his backing band; drummer Patrick Carney hooked up with other kit-men and started an indie rock band called Drummer; and the two helped produce Damon Dash’s decent-to-pretty-good Blakroc record in 2009, providing beats and blues licks for Raekwon, ODB, Ludacris, Mos Def, and others to rap over.
The looseness enjoyed by the duo has translated well to Brothers, their sixth record. With cover art slyly nodding to Howlin’ Wolf’s The Howlin’ Wolf’s Album, the record sees the band cranking out its most cohesive collection of glam rock, souped-up soul, and electric blues. The duo’s quirky sense of humor shines through not only on the record sleeve, promo artwork, and videos, but also on the record itself. Brothers is the least stuffy record The Black Keys has put out, and it’s by far their strongest.
Opener “Everlasting Light” showcases Auerbach’s embrace of falsetto, a feature that over the course of the record reveals him as a credible soul vocalist, owing to Van Morrison and the host of Motown and Stax singers whose ghosts haunt the record. Carney’s drums sound giant but appropriate, the boom of the kick drum recorded in a large room and the crunched thwack of the snare propelling Auerbach’s overdriven riff. The background vocals of Nicole Wray add a gospel sheen, shoop-do-wahhing the hook over the beat. It’s in some ways the ebullient sound expected from Danger Mouse’s work with the band, but here he only produces one song, the single “Tighten Up,” and damn if it isn’t better than any song on Attack & Release, its whistled intro an evil cousin of Peter Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks,” with Carney’s drums taking center stage as Auerbach croons “I wanted love/ I needed love/ Most of all/ Most of all.”
The rest of the record finds The Black Keys toying around without the superstar producer, and tellingly, the results are even more unhinged and exciting. “Howlin’ For You” rides a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 2” beat over warm tube bass tone and supremely fuzzed lead guitar. The wordless chorus is perfect nonsense, the verses tapping into the macho chest-beating of Bo Diddly with effortless thrust — in short, the kind of song the band always suggested it was capable of writing. “Too Afraid to Love You” rides a vintage G-Funk groove, at once menacing and sexy.
There’s plenty of the stompers the band built their reputation on, like “Next Girl” and “The Go-Getter,” but the record offsets them with some of the tenderest work the band has put to tape. “Unknown Brother” is melodic on every front, with a shuffling main riff balanced by gorgeous Rhodes piano, expressive leads, and Auerbach’s mournful lyrics. “Ten Cent Pistol” walks a fine line, threatening to burst into a rave up but instead staying taut and restrained like a previously hidden Rain Dogs track. “I’m Not the One” and closer “These Days” ache with a lovelorn melancholy, suggesting that, if Auerbach hasn’t had his heart broken or broke someone’s heart recently, the guy’s a convincing actor.
The easy knock on Brothers is that it’s too long. The statement is fair; at 15 songs, the record does tend to resemble the rambling classic rock record over the MP3 snippet collections we’ve become accustomed to. But the record also makes a convincing case for a little listener patience. The band’s cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” could most likely be the first song cut in interest of tightness, and that would have been an utter shame. It’s a classic song, and Auerbach and Carney don’t just perform it; they make it their own, and it in turn makes the record. It’s a perfect example of what a band like The Black Keys can pull off when they decide to err on the side of thinking with their guts, and Brothers suggest that the band has found the confidence to keep doing exactly that.