The Black Keys: Brothers

Can a two-piece band go "back to basics"? The Black Keys get close enough here, with excellent results.

The Black Keys


Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2010-05-18
UK Release Date: 2010-05-17

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.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.