For four albums, the Black Keys’ sound was as obvious as the cover for their sixth album, Brothers: “This is an album by the Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” So even after they took a (slight) left turn on 2008’s Attack & Release via a production team-up with the genre-bending Danger Mouse, even casual listeners had to know that the Keys would beat a hasty retreat to the environs of their skeletal blues-fuzz. Apart from lead single “Tighten Up,” the lone holdover from the now ceased Danger Mouse collaboration, the Keys do just that on Brothers. Produced by guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, Brothers is the Keys’ tightest album since 2004’s Rubber Factory.
Being that the Black Keys’ sound begins with Junior Kimbrough’s skuzzy, raw take on the blues and ends with Credence Clearwater Revival, drawing lines between their catalog is an exercise in cutting the thinnest of hairs. The Keys have delivered some unimpeachable stretches on their albums (the first half of Rubber Factory, the first two-thirds of Thickfreakness, the middle third of The Big Come Up), but since Magic Potion the hit-to-OK ratio has diminished significantly. Brothers, at least through the country-western-on-acid howl of “The Only One,” doubles down on the Black Keys’ greatest strengths in a big way. There are the witchy women burners (“Next Girl,” “She’s Long Gone”), the dusty speaker exploders (“Tighten Up,” “Howlin’ For You”), all of which will surely crush festivalgoers in the near future.
The bulk of Brothers is clogged with the slower blues-ballads the band has padded its albums with since the jump (ironically, those songs hardly ever make it on the set list at the band’s concerts). Granted, those songs might put the Keys more firmly into the blues lineage they strive for, but for every Wall of Sound ditty like “Never Give You Up” there are a couple songs charging hard for treacle territory. But nothing here falls as flat as the similar songs on the band’s past two albums, particularly due to Auerbach’s improved vocal range. He is able to change his voice between delicate, bruised, ballsy and sweet, sometimes in the same song.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brothers is that it finds the Black Keys so firmly back in their old mode after a year when they did everything they could to distance themselves from their past. Auerbach went solo and released an album that updated his sound to Neil Young and Crazy Horse rock, while Carney joined up in a jokey band made up of Ohio drummers called, of course, Drummer. Then they teamed with Damon Dash (and Jim Jones!) for Blakroc, an album that took all the songwriting pressure off Auerbach and Carney and instead put it on Mos Def and other rappers (and Jim Jones!). Brothers, meanwhile, proves that the Keys can still put a few more miles on their well-driven blues machine, regardless of what direction their non-Keys work takes them.