By Rip Empson
From where I sit, The Black Keys long ago cemented their legacy as the Greatest Band to Come Out of Akron, Ohio Since Devo. Now, admittedly, the competition for this illustrious distinction isn’t exactly fierce, but following-up on the huge success of 2008’s Attack and Release, their hazy, psychedelic collaboration with Danger Mouse, on top of a critically acclaimed foray into hip hop last year with Blakrock, which attracted the likes of RZA, Mos Def, and Ludacris … ? Easier said than done.
This being the case, I was anxious to see (along with perhaps a few other Black Keys fans) if Brothers – which released May 18 – would be another step away from the gritty, blues-fried sound that made them my special band. Luckily, my concerns were unfounded. What’s so cool about Brothers is that, being the Keys’ sixth album, it demonstrates a maturity that should now come with being produced by The Best Thing From Akron Besides LeBron; the album manages to both pay tribute to the band’s Delta influences as well as build upon their experiments in other genres.
While a little errant pop does shine through, Brothers nevertheless confirms that The Black Keys will remain the torch-bearers of badass contemporary blues – always just a little weirder and muddier than their counterparts, The White Stripes. Fittingly, the album kicks off with the rolling, catchy “Everlasting Light,” which features guitarist Dan Auerbach singing in distortion-soaked falsetto, punctuated by doo-wop back-up singers and revolving glam guitar that would make Marc Bolan (of the great T Rex) proud as a weird, British peacock.
From there on out (with one or two exceptions), Brothers is permeated with the retro, swampy feel of 70’s-era Chess B-sides – or more accurately – the Muscle Shoal sound. To record their newest effort, Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney headed down to an obscure town in northwestern Alabama to record at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, once an underground mecca for R & B and rock artists, seeing the likes of Aretha, The Stones, Wilson Pickett, and Paul Simon, pass through its doors.
If Brothers is any indication — Muscle Shoal has some good voodoo. Sure, the album sounds slick in places, and Danger Mouse returns for collaboration on the cinematic pop anthem “Tighten Up” and, yes, there’s some whistling. But, the hazy and heavy Black Keys are back. “Black Mud” and “The Go Getter” will have you thinking you’re doing heroin with Robert Plant and Albert King.
So, for any of you Black Keys blues purists out there, don’t worry – the chewy bump of “Howlin’ For You” (along with the album cover’s homage to Howlin’ Wolf’s 1969 “The Howlin’ Wolf Album”) and “Ten Cent Pistol” will leave plenty of grit in your teeth – and assure you that there’s enough blues to go around.
With Brothers, it’s clear that Auerbach and Carney have been soaking up plenty of Curtis Mayfield and classic soul – and that they’re trying to teach old sounds new tricks. With great singing by Auerbach and the best drumming by Carney yet, I think it’s working. But, then again, I’m just a janitor.
11.5 out of a 13 possible carrots … or a “B+” if you wanna be a dick about it.