Throughout the course of their six full length studio albums The Black Keys have adopted a very precise trajectory. While their earlier recordings were full of raw, blues-infused garage rock, the Ohioan duos latter albums have leaned towards a more textured and thoughtful sound. Brothers is the best example of this yet. While it will undoubtedly be their most successful album yet (both commercially and critically) it also risks alienating a substantial slice of the fan-base the band has built over the past 8 years.
Recorded in the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have created a lovelorn album, touching on several musical styles like gospel, soul, boogie and funk – all musical trends largely absent from the BK’s work up until recently – and, of course, the blues. While this is undeniably a Black Keys album, it’s their loosest one to date and the first where there is a clear and stated preference towards other musical genres, ahead of the primal blues-rock for which they’re most recognised. In fact, only ‘She’s Long Gone’, with its dirty, hook-ridden guitar line, could pass as a song from a previous record.
This album is not without its highlights, though. Auerbach shows why everyone from Eddie Vedder to Thom Yorke are hardcore fans with an assured vocal display, especially the groovy falsetto of ‘Everlasting Light’ and lazy soul number ‘Ten Cent Pistol’. Similarly, drummer Patrick Carney makes a distinct impression. While he’ll never be one of the most polished percussionists you’ll ever hear, he’s certainly one of the most effective. Time and again Carney manages to trick the ear, sometimes deliberately off tempo and non-standard but always engaging.
Another element that the Black Keys have added to this album is the presence of a bass guitar. While their previous albums together contained only a handful of songs with bass, every song on Brothers is underscored by a deep resonant sound, dramatically altering the feel of the band. However it’s a most welcome addition on swerving rockers like ‘Sinister Kid’ and ‘Tighten Up’, which you just couldn’t imagine being played in the Keys’ standard drums n’ guitar approach of yesteryear.
Brothers is a good record, just not a great one. It seems a bit top-heavy and with the 15 song collection running at almost an hour, it risks losing the listener at various points throughout. That said, there’s something comforting about hearing their obvious attempts at forgoing stagnation in favour of progress and challenging their own sound. Auerbach and Carney are two of the most talented musicians around at the moment so, even if this album doesn’t particularly have the same rabid bite as previous offerings; at least they’re challenging themselves. Now let’s see where they go from here.