We are quickly approaching the 10 year anniversary of the birth of The Black Keys as a band, and during that time they’ve been remarkably productive. The duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have together released 6 albums if you include their new one “Brothers”, and that’s coming off a year-long break from the band where both guys went off and did their own things. Auerbach released a solo album that was basically another Black Keys record in disguise, while Carney got together with a group of fellow percussionists and created the beat-centric band Drummer. Back from their brief separation, despite essentially working the entire time, The Black Keys are returning a refreshed and reinvigorated band looking to reclaim the loose and fun blues revivalist sound that made their first few records so compelling.
With their 2008 album “Attack & Release”,. Auerbach and Carney practically admitted their sound had grown stale after four albums, so they hired Danger Mouse to shake things up a little bit and bring some of that edge back. The experiment wasn’t an unmitigated failure by most standards, and it did take the band away from their heavy blues influences for a moment to incorporate some psychedelic elements. Danger Mouse isn’t helping out with “Brothers”, but The Black Keys haven’t entirely forgotten a few of the tricks they learned from him. They continue to incorporate some hazy, drug-fueled bits on this new record, though the overall sound is far more easygoing and old school than anything else. Auerbach continues to stir up some seriously fierce guitar work while Carney’s rhythms remain some of the best around these days. The small innovations they have made for “Brothers” include an increased reliance on organ and piano, as well as the incorporation of harpsichord for “Too Afraid To Love You”. Auerbach also breaks out a brand new secret weapon in the form of a falsetto that he’s apparently been hiding all this time, which is surprisingly strong and compelling. It adds a new dimension to songs like “Everlasting Light” and “The Only One”. Where that really shines though is on their cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which becomes nearly indistinguishable from the original. They were smart to avoid trying to make the song their own or improving upon it, as you don’t mess with perfection. And that the song passes by and fits in so perfectly with the rest of the album is just another sign of how The Black Keys aren’t so much ripping off past records but instead making music that’s of no particular time and place – it sounds good in any era.
The real tragedy with “Brothers”, if you can call it a tragedy, is that it once again shows that The Black Keys aren’t exactly interested in taking many chances. If you pick up any Black Keys album, there are certain markers you expect them to hit, and they almost always do. Their fuzzed out, swampy blues sound has carried them across these 6 records and they don’t appear to want to do a whole lot to change that. Given that most of those albums have turned out quite well though makes their lack of ambition more respectable, because you don’t always need to mess with success. “Brothers” may not be the best record The Black Keys have ever done, but it is more of a return to form after their last couple albums took much darker and more serious tones. Hell, if the cover art announcing “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” doesn’t make you crack at least a little bit of a smile, perhaps the music video for “Next Girl” which features Frank the Dinosaur puppet will. The album thankfully maintains that looser and goofier vibe and is better for it. For those familiar with previous Black Keys albums, “Brothers” won’t change your opinion of them either way, but it just might attract some new fans to the fold. That’s about all they can ask for this far along in their careers, though you have to start wondering exactly when the bottom is going to drop out on these guys and they become just another band settling for being average rather than continuing to try and expand upon what they’ve already done.