By Joseph Viney
The Black Keys took their name from a turn of phrase uttered by a friend of the band. Dan Auerbach (vocals/guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums/production) would often hear their mutual acquaintance, a diagnosed schizophrenic, deem people he did not like as “…black keys”. For a long while now it has been fair to say that those who didn’t enjoy their blend of old school blues, heavy rock and lo-fi sensibilities also suffered from a debilitating mental illness. Taking their lead from such acts as The Sonics, Captain Beefheart and the White Stripes, Black Keys have effectively carved out their own niche and built up a dedicated fan base. As well as this they have been given free reign to conduct themselves as they see fit.
Produced in conjunction with the current poster boy of alternative music, Danger Mouse, Brothers marks a further step in the direction mapped out by 2009’s Attack & Release; breezy electronics, more ballads and distinct effort to push the boundaries of the dynamics usually offered by a two-man group. Whilst the subject matter (girls, sex, money, guns and shady characters) remains the same, the delivery has changed markedly. Gone are the scratchy guitars and crashing drums, that done-in-one-take feel that served them so well from day one. In its place is a more calculated style; each song is augmented with Hammond organs, bells, whistles, beeps and loops. Followers of the group will have seen this coming; 2009 saw the release of Blak Roc, Black Keys’ collective efforts with Ludacris, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard and A Tribe Called Quest. The Black Keys don’t appear to be shy or discriminative of who they work with or what they create.
Album opener Everlasting Light resonates like a heavenly choir. Auerbach’s unbreakable falsetto glides across the music and settles in front of the pounding drums that sound suspiciously like Take That’s Shine. One of the main benefits of utilising the studio is that Black Keys sound as if they have acquired two or three band members secretly. The only worry that presents itself is whether the two of them can recreate the sound of the album in a live setting adequately or whether they will be reduced to belting out sub-standard versions of what are very accomplished and polished songs.
Despite the positive stylistic changes the songs are sometimes lacking in bite and killer hooks. Black Keys’ first creative peak was reached in 2004 with Rubber Factory, an album of raw and efficient blues-rock seared with howled vocals and distortion. Whilst Brothers isn’t exactly an all-out assault on the mainstream, some of these tracks wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radio One Best Of 2010 compilation. Bands, fans and critics can sometimes find themselves in a difficult bind when a group makes changes and progresses; on one hand they must be applauded for straying from their comfort zone, but of course on the other hand it could be an experiment that turns into a complete and utter failure.
Brothers is not a complete and utter failure by any stretch. However the vitality of their earlier efforts is sorely missed. Where in the past they could switch between loud and quiet, intricate and simple with relative ease, the majority of songs on Brothers are liable to sound very similar to one another. This will apply more so to new fans of the group, who would do themselves no harm in seeking out their back catalogue as a companion piece. The exceptions to the rule are the standout tracks Next Girl, Tighten Up, the aforementioned Everlasting Light, the playful Howlin’ For You and the lucid, psychedelic instrumental Black Mud. The lyrical content of their work has also been taken up a notch. No doubt working with rappers and producers with proven quality, as well as Auerbach getting some breathing space with his solo LP Keep It Hid has brought out a new patience and maturity to their lyrical approach.
The Black Keys, for better or worse, are certainly destined for even bigger and better things. It’s always a pleasure to be in the presence of a group maturing at a rapid rate, mastering the art of song writing and production. Where they were lacking prior (bass lines, top quality production) has been remedied beyond satisfaction. Caveat emptor; will maturity dull their senses, take the wildness, the unpredictability out of their sound? Or can they blend both elements competently and fulfil their promise as one of the more exciting groups in existence at this moment in time?
7 OUT OF 10