The Black Keys


(Nonesuch; 2010)

By Clayton Purdom | 26 May 2010

It’s easy to think of every Black Keys record as more of the same—and, to be upfront, Brothers is more of the same—but let’s not forget recent history. The band’s infuriatingly ineluctable high-quality was imperiled by 2007’s Attack & Release, an Ike Turner-intended collaborative effort with Danger Mouse that, like everything else Danger Mouse has ever touched, was fucking corny. Danger Mouse’s “hip-hop” pulls from ’70s psych, funk, and soul—in theory, a perfect complement to the Black Keys’ sturdy blues—but somehow always puts quotes around these lifts, incorporating cartoon choirs and walking bass lines as punchlines rather than, you know, musical elements. And if there’s one thing that has always distinguished the Black Keys, it’s that their pulls from blues music do so sans scare quotes or overly serious reverence. They pull blues like it was Old Granddad from someone else’s flask, almost too raw to worry about ownership over. These guys can cover Junior Kimbrough without a wink or a straight-face; they just play this music because they’re fucking good at it.

I don’t really know how to insert the painfully titled “Blakroc” project into this analysis, so I’m simply not going to. Suffice it to say that following those two mistaken forays into sonic adventurousness the Black Keys have returned to form on Brothers, which I as a critic am obligated to refer to as “their strongest record in years,” but now at least have those two clearcut recent missteps to point to as proof. There is 100% less RZA on this record, for example.

What’s funny about all of this is that by returning to what they’re good at—that is, making Black Keys records—they’ve stumbled upon that sense of variety they previously sought in all the wrong places (and by wrong places I mean specifically, again, Danger Mouse). Instead of tricking out the top end with Jim Jones guest spots or haunted house sound effects they alter their formula at a more molecular level, moving from their comfort zone of keening verse and crashing chorus to tracks like the simpering, Spoon-y chug of “Everlasting Love” or the noodling “Black Mud.” Elsewhere, they keen and crash with greater aplomb than ever before, as on the showstopping Motown bloom of “Never Gonna Give You Up” (not a Rick Roll) or the definitive bro-out “Ohio.” I feel like the dudes must have been doing blow with famous people during the recording of the last two records; here, they sound pissed on Natty Ice at a house party, halfway as drunk as they’re going to be when they drive to Taco Bell in ninety minutes.

Which was an interesting thing they had going before, and return to here: an affect-less take on electric blues guitar that smacks not of reappropriation but like they tried forming a punk band and realized they were better at this, or got laid more often, or something. Plus none of their friends played bass. The no-bullshit album cover might be the cheekiest thing about delightfully straight-forward Brothers, but unlike the faux-bloozman zaniness of album titles like Thickfreakness (2003) it’s an apt cheekiness they employ on that cover. “This is an album by The Black Keys,” it declares. The music within proves why that’s a good thing—something laudatory, and worth preservation.