Over the last decade, the Black Keys have quietly revealed themselves to be an incredibly consistent workhorse band. They’ve produced two classic albums (2003’s Thickfreakness and 2004’s Rubber Factory), and really nothing they’ve done has fallen below “pretty good”. Yet, despite this track record (along with well-received side projects like guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach’s solo album Keep It Hid or the rap/blues collaboration Blackroc), you rarely see the Black Keys advanced as one of the new classics or guiding lights of modern music. Damn shame, that.
Still, there have been missteps. 2008’s Attack & Release saw the band smoothing out some of their rough edges. It wasn’t what you’d call overproduced in any traditional sense — no overblown orchestral interludes or anything like that — but Danger Mouse’s production brought a flat-affect retro vibe to the whole thing that made it sound like a harder-rocking collection of Gnarls Barkley backing tracks.
Thankfully, as the telegraphically back-to-basics cover art would suggest, Brothers finds Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney regaining some of the sweaty basement immediacy that characterized their best work. Rather than simply revisit their old records, however, they manage to balance the raw aesthetic of their earlier albums with a quest for new and interesting sounds. Take, for example, the distorted, echoing keyboards and snippets of female backing vocals lurking behind the pounding, skeletal groove of “Next Girl”. The basic track could be taken from The Big Come Up, but the arrangement details catapult it into newer territory. Some of those keyboard tones resurface on the menacing LA narrative “The Go-Getter”, which also explores some aggressive stereo separation.
Such questing yields mixed results at times. The “Rock and Roll, Part 2” pastiche and blues clichés of “Howlin’ for You” never quite gel, but it is immediately followed by “She’s Long Gone”, which features a tortured wah guitar tone that brings to mind a bluesier version of stoner-metal progenitors Sleep. Later in the album, we settle into a ’70s soul ballad feel as “The Only One”, “Too Afraid to Love You”, and “Never Give You Up” deliver passionate (and occasionally falsetto) vocals over keyboards and insistent beats. This foray into baby-making music works better than you might expect from a punk-blues duo. Single “Tighten Up” may encapsulate this experimental ethos best on its own, as its initially annoying whistling hook is redeemed by an attention-grabbing tempo shift and some well-placed phaser in the last third of the song.
At 15 songs, this album is probably longer than it needs to be (“Black Mud”, in particular, reeks of filler). But the restless experimentation on Brothers infuses the Black Keys’ minimalist blues-rock with a sense of “what if we try THIS” excitement not far removed from their earlier plug-in-and-go aesthetic. Much like the Black Keys themselves, this is not an all-time classic for the ages, but it’s very good. Most bands don’t get around to pulling that off, and still fewer do it on their sixth full-length album. That the Black Keys are still exploring new territories with enthusiasm is cause for celebration, and Brothers is the reason why.