The Black Keys

Nonesuch Records, 2010

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


It’s easy to forget now, but the Black Keys were born in the early 2000s during the garage rock revival, when we decided to be done with nu-metal and boy bands and get back to basics. Where other bands scored right away, the Keys took their time and wrote variations on the same blues-rock-psychedelic sound, beloved by a few and by critics, but not really going anywhere.

Until Brothers, which changed everything. Although too long, it netted a couple of hits in “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You,” scored the band some commercials, which turned into TV spots, which turned into Grammys and sales, and eventually into the mainstream success of El Camino in 2011. By that time, the garage rock revival was done and the Keys had emerged successful, but without really betraying their roots.

Longtime fans will disagree, of course, but let’s make the argument here that “Howlin’ For You” is the first really great song the duo wrote. The indelible bass rumble, the heavy reverb on Dan Auerbach’s “da da da DA da” post-chorus scat, the fuzzy guitar on the edges on the speakers, and that crunchy percussion all combined into something you need to hear. A decade on, it still gets play on alt-rock radio stations, and it sounds as good now as it did then.

“Tighten Up” features a simple riff, some whistles and a whole lot of attitude, a deserved minor hit. Even better is “She’s Long Gone,” a song that begs you to hit repeat, as it packs so much blues-rock heat and grit into three minutes that you wish it would go on for another six. I’ve not followed this band live, but I am willing to bet this is a showstopper in concert, or at least a chance for Auerbach to stretch out on guitar for a while. It’s simply my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 great, the kind of song you listen to and realize why these guys had such a following for so long, and why they deserved to break through.

“Black Mud” befits its title, a Southern rock two-minute instrumental crawl that leads into the pop-psychedelic blues of “The Only One,” in which Auerbach explores his falsetto again, a newly-discovered talent for this album. “Too Afraid To Love You” also trucks in a harpsichord and a series of ghostly background keyboard noises to swirl around Pat Carney’s blues foundation; sonic details like that are what have always set the Keys apart, and it gives this album personality.

Understanding the history of the album puts it in a little context too. The duo was creatively struggling after Attack & Release and needed a break; Auerbach opted to record a solo album without informing Carney, and the drummer was going through a divorce and some personal issues. After a few months without speaking, the men were able to reconcile and decided to channel any lingering frustration into recording. However, they weren’t going just anywhere; they trucked the equipment to Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama (yes, the Muscle Shoals) and poured their hearts into making Brothers.

As ever, real-life turmoil and respect for the masters makes for the best blues-rock, and the authenticity and willingness to experiment is what elevated Brothers in polls and among listeners. It’s not a hybrid that other duos pull off – a Keys song remains recognizable almost immediately – and it kicked off the 2010s with attitude.

Really, the biggest issue with the album – aside from the lackluster opening two tracks – is its length, as four songs probably could have been cut to turn this into a lean yet idiosyncratic album. The six-minute “Sinister Kid” is just great, but “I’m Not The One” may be better, Auerbach really leaning into the soul of the piece, and it honestly should have been the final song on the album.

Brothers did not reinvent the Keys sound, nor did not reinvent blues rock, but it brought friends back together and consolidated eight years and five albums of decent music into something exciting and vital. That pulse still beats at the heart of this album, which remains one of the duo’s finest to date.

Rating: B+

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