For the most part, Black Keys albums tend to exist at a consistent level of quality akin to that of your favorite pair of jeans. Their albums are comfortable, they have holes in some spots, and they’re unsurprising in a usually positive way. 2008’s Attack and Release, produced by Danger Mouse, was a bit of a game-changer for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney because it added much needed texture to their stubborn guitar-and-drums aesthetic. And, if Attack and Release was the best Black Keys album since Rubber Factory (and it was), then it might have to take a back seat to Brothers, which is the catchiest, most compelling Black Keys album yet. Although Rubber Factory will always be my favorite of their albums, there’s no denying all the good stuff going for the Black Keys on Brothers. They’ve maintained their willingness to play in the studio (although one must hope they stop touring as a two-piece. It’s really okay to be a full band, guys. No one will love you less for being able to do on stage what you did in the studio, and you’d really only need two more guys to do it) and they’ve added an R&B/boogie sensibility that fits nicely with their profound understanding of the blues (I think it comes from being arguably the two coolest motherfuckers in Ohio. That would give me the blues).
After a solo album that was just like a Black Keys record with worse drumming (okay, Keep It Hid was pretty good, I know. But there wasn’t much about it that sounded different from the Black Keys), Dan Auerbach has brought some more inspired work to Brothers, leading the album off with a Curtis Mayfield-ish falsetto on “Everlasting Light” (if I compare you favorably to Mr. Mayfield, you’re doing something right) – a song I can’t stop listening to – and using his guitar more sparingly over the whole album. There is no doubt at all that Auerbach is one of the most underrated guitarists in the country right now (if you’ve caught them live or seen their live DVD, you’ve noticed that Auerbach’s playing is positively Hendrixian when he gets going), but pretty much every Black Keys album features his chunky riffage and face-melting solos. On Brothers, keyboards take the lead at times, and Auerbach’s guitar is able to add some nice texture without having the pressure of being the only melodic instrument in the band, which also gives Auerbach’s guitar a lot more punch when he whips it into the foreground, as he does on “Unknown Brother” and a couple other tunes. So, just like with Attack & Release, there’s all the stuff you loved about early Black Keys albums and some new ideas that are compelling enough to warrant repeated listens.
But apart from all the musical minutia, Brothers is a lot of fun. You get the sense that Auerbach and Carney really know what they want to do as a band (remember how listless they sounded on Magic Potion? Of course you don’t! Because no one listens to that album anymore) and they’re able to proceed with confidence. You can’t attribute all of that to their collaboration with Danger Mouse, but Brothers proceeds so logically from Attack & Release that it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some kind of epiphany moment for the Carney and Auerbach while working with my favorite (and probably America’s finest, this side of Madlib) producer. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Black Keys have ventured (possibly forever) beyond the garage-blues trappings of their early years (and let’s not undervalue those early albums. Thickfreakness isn’t just a good guitar album, it’s a reason to play guitar as loud as you possibly can) and are currently occupying a territory where their ability to synthesize their influences (which are clearly old blues and soul records – perhaps even my esteemed Curtis Mayfield) is bordering on the uncanny.
Not that they’ve gone brazenly electronic here or anything – like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Black Keys will always have a deliciously old school sound for which they should be praised. Brothers isn’t so much a calculated attempt to lure a wider audience as it is a thoroughly considered and well-executed album by a band that is really coming into its own, perhaps a little later than some people thought they would. With Attack & Release, I still had worries of a relapse into the malaise of Magic Potion. But now, with Brothers, the Black Keys are heading straight into the lights of Awesometown with a legitimate shot at running the place.
Holy shit. Stop the presses. I just had the best idea ever: an album-length collaboration between Sharon Jones & the Black Keys, produced by Danger Mouse. That album would probably result in instant world peace (assuming EMI didn’t find a way to kill it, regardless of what label releases it). I know I mentioned that earlier this week, but I think I should just keep talking about it until it happens.
Where was I? Oh yeah. Brothers. If previous Black Keys albums (except for Magic Potion, which we can all safely forget at this point) are broken in, comfortable, predictable pairs of jeans, Brothers is a brand new pair that is a lot more comfy the first time you wear them than maybe you thought was possible. It has a real sense of play to it that indicates good things in the future from Ohio’s least likely rock heroes. Especially if they do that album with Sharon Jones.