album review: the black keys, brothers
Consider yourself warned: my feelings about this album are so strong that I feel like I’m defining a relationship more than I am writing a review.
I first got into the Black Keys two years ago, after my town library introduced me to the brilliance of Attack and Release. I had heard a lot about the Black Keys – they were part of the underground blues-rock “the” band movement of the mid-aughts that bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes really made mainstream. I was blown away at contradiction of their sound. On a basic level, they sound like a true rock and roll outfit, recalling early Rolling Stones or even bluesier influences like Jimi Hendrix.
However, it’s impossible to deny the level of production – the mixing and engineering – that makes lead singer Dan Auerbach’s voice achieve the doubled effect for which the band has since become known. Ironically enough, it took a conversation in 2009 with my German flatmate about the new crop of American rock music post-Jack White to make me realize how much I liked this band.
I’ve been a solid fan ever since. When I read some early reviews of Brothers naming it the best album of 2010, I was surprised that this band, in my mind – the little band that could, had finally broken into the mainstream. Even as I saw the success grow exponentially in the first three months following the album’s release, I was under the impression that they were still a bit underground. It became undeniably clear to me that I was wrong in that idea when I saw them perform at Bonnaroo this past summer to an audience of at least 20,000 fans who knew the words beyond the singles (that estimate is low, but The Flaming Lips were playing one stage over – SERIOUSLY, BONNAROO ORGANIZERS? HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO US?).
It’s strange that their monumental success is coming at this point in their careers; both musicians have been at it a long time and been in other bands. Both are fathers, have been through hell and back, and both are old enough to be considered “aging” hipsters. But when you see these guys perform, they might as well be the most talented seventeen year olds you know jamming in the basement. They’re still that passionate about performing. They’re rock stars. No other words to describe them.
My interest and potential fan-girl status has led me to read up on them wherever possible. The two men have been friends since a very young age and after 2008’s Attack & Release, decided to pursue solo projects. This is a rumour I heard from one of my friends on the very inside of the New York music scene – so it’s probably halfway plausible – but it’s such a good story that I had to impart it to you, faithful lipmag readers. Drummer Patrick Carney’s wife left him in the middle of the band’s time apart and it broke his heart to such an extent that he became angry at Dan for leaving him alone. Dan, busy being awesome and pursuing his own solo project, took some time to realize that Pat was right. He wrote the Brothers album from the perspective of Pat’s broken heart. The result is Brothers, an emotionally charged, instrumentally sound, lyrically amazing rock and roll album.
I think all the songs on this album are awesome, but in the interest of time I’ll only highlight those I really love. First, I appreciate Dan’s exploration of the falsetto in opening track “Everlasting Light”, demonstrating his hard work to establish his trademark rock howl over the past ten years. The placing of it within the album is awesome; I used to drive to this CD all the time and be totally satisfied with the knowledge that I’d at least get to hear the song. I also especially enjoy “Tighten Up” because of superstar producer Danger Mouse’s catchy handiwork. The next song that stands out to me is “She’s Long Gone” because it sounds the most like the old Keys – searing guitar riffs, loud drums, bluesy vague lyrics about the woman that got away and hard-hitting pedal effects that stick with you after the album’s over. Following track “Black Mud” is a two minute jam session that continues in the same old school, kick ass vein as “She’s Long Gone”. Ever so careful in their structuring of the album, the next song is ruled by Dan’s new falsetto, the dreamy “The Only One”, which contrasts brilliantly with the previous two tracks and reminds the listeners that Brothers purposefully reflects artistic growth. The next stand-out song is “Sinister Kid” because A) sinster is one of my most favorite words in the English language and B) its understated, low-fi production emphasizes how talented these two men are. “Unknown Brother” is the track that encompasses the whole spirit – both musically and emotionally, if you believe the rumour – of the album. It’s always the song that pops into my head when I think of Brothers or the Keys in general. My favorite track, though, immediately follows it: “Never Gonna Give You Up” is awesome because the Keys really do Jerry Butler justice on that track. When I first played that song for my dad this summer, he asked me if it was a black woman singing. How awesome is that?
I could go on forever here, but I guess I’ll leave you with one important takeaway: the critics weren’t wrong in proclaiming Brothers the best album of 2010. I have yet to hear anything as tight or culturally on point as this album. Beyond producing instrumentally clean rock and roll music, the Black Keys straddle the line of digital influence and vinyl-era guitar and drum work so perfectly that they have managed to define the music of our generation in a way that few other bands can.