When one has a “traditional” band comprised of two people, and only 4 hands, it is quite difficult to consistently produce quality songs. This proves even truer within the genre of blues-rock. The sound must be creatively cared for so as not to become repetitively thin, and/or dull to the ears-and-mind. The Black Keys are no novices to this particular challenge, and in their new album “Brothers” we find their 6th musical attempt at this difficult test.
“Brothers” starts off with one of the best tracks of the album (which contains a lengthy 15 tracks), Everlasting Light. It is an introduction to the overall sound of the album; a gritty, low-end heavy version of blues-rock in which the drums often take a back seat to the forward moving bass/guitar. The low-end is such that at times one can’t tell if they are listening to bass or an effected guitar. When you can differentiate the two the guitar still leans towards to low-end, and the bass at times sounds like it was DI’ed (not mic’ed from the amp), resulting in a wide, heavy, but oddly in-dynamic low end.
Now aggresive-blues-rock isn’t anything novel for this band, but “Brothers” differs from those before in the way it uses the relationship between drums and guitar/bass. At times in this album it is as if the guitar has mutinied – in addition to becoming sonorously deep – and plunges forward to declare itself the leader. It is songs such as Next Girl, Sinister Kid, and The Go Getter in which this approach works best and produces truly fun songs that contian great movement.
The vocals or supplemental sounds (such as organ, or layered guitar or bass) on this album seem to move forward also, but don’t always choose to supplement the guitar, instead they just seem to move in a similar direction while the drums hold the middle ground. So in the end we find a more stilted, gravelly, atypical blues-rock sound. Tighten Up is a song that displays this quickly punctuated bluesy style well, and is also smartly fortified with a pleasantly rolling breakdown and delightful peripheral sounds.
And while this stilted, gritty blues sound is prevalent throughout the album there are also a couple tracks in which The Black Keys revert to their tried-and-true method of creating catchy, rhythmic, drum+guitar riffs and beats. On Howlin’ for You we find a toe-tapping, head-shaking song that revolves around an unchanging drum beat and a more traditionally emotive guitar. It is classic Black Keys, and it’s one of the albums best.
But then there are other tracks that don’t come off as successful. She’s Long Gone, Black Mud, Too Afraid to Love You, and Ten Cent Pistol are examples of how easy it is to hit the creative ceiling with two musicians, and we find ourselves with blues-rock that unfortunately comes off as slightly vapid and stock-sounding.
Overall “Brothers” is an album that is best described as a mixed bag. There are indeed quality tracks that showcase The Black Keys ability to push the creative envelope of minimalist blues-rock. Yet, the album probably could have been reduced to 10 songs – as opposed to 15 – focusing more on the novel sounds of this album and cutting the fat of their more “normal” blues-rock numbers. Also, the soulful-swing present in their previous album, “Attack and Release” could probably have been brought in to good effect on a few tracks.
However, for just 2 guys playing the blues, I don’t know if anyone else could continually make such interesting, varying, and successful approaches to what is arguably the most static genre that exists. So while, for The Black Keys, it may be a “good-not-great album”, for the contemporary blues fan, it is still an album worth digesting.
By Sean Brna