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Posted on May 28th, 2010 (1:31 am) by Bonnie Clayton

Throughout their career, the Black Keys have periodically produced albums that were solid and intensely enjoyable overall, but lacking in nuance—the twist of a chord, an unexpected solo—that separate great blues songs from good blues songs. Upon the release of Thickfreakness in 2003 and ever after, adoring fans and critics high off the rising popularity of the White Stripes tended to lump the two bands together in an effort to form some kind of cohesive vision of the future of music.

It might have been a good comparison at the time, since both bands made catchy, blues-influenced, instrumentally simple albums that were best played straight through in their entirety. Things have changed, though, and Brothers proves to be a unique and valuable album for a new decade.

From the first bouncing notes and thumping drum beat of “Everlasting Light” you get that wonderful feeling that comes when a band totally and unexpectedly exceeds your expectations; it's still the same old Black Keys, for sure, but with less of the generic tales of heartbreak and repetitive riffs so often found in their previous work, and more innovation. Even if it doesn't match the mood of their other albums, who can resist a line like “love is the coal/that makes this train roll?”

“Next Girl” sounds a lot like their old stuff, which will definitely appeal to long-time fans but ultimately pales in comparison to the album's better tracks, such as the following “Tighten Up.” At about two-and-a-half minutes into “Tighten Up,” the Black Keys do something that is extremely rare for them as a band—they move away from their style of unwaveringly repeating a riff until the end of the song, and instead take the song somewhere else entirely. With a few flicks of a drumstick, the tempo slows down ever-so-slightly, creating a tension with the guitar that mirrors the brooding mood suggested by lyrics like “living just to keep going/going just to be sane.” When the track segues into the swinging, George Thorogood-esque “Howlin For You,” it is clear that the band has overcome one of the major hurdles of being a modern blues-rock band, maturely channeling their influences without making them sound too retro or stale.

The songs “The Only One” and “Unknown Brother” both sound different from anything else the Black Keys have ever done, and yet both manage to merge with the other tracks beautifully, giving the album a give-and-take kind of feel between the old and the new. Dan Auerbach’s higher-pitched vocals on “The Only One” are stunning, and with the light steadiness of the instrumentation the track becomes ethereal. And “Unknown Brother,” which features (of all things) a sleigh bell solo, has to be one of the most genuinely tender and emotive songs of the year.

On Brothers, unexpected touches and departures from their original style propel the band from reliably filling a blues-rock niche to being bona fide artists capable of skillfully playing with the genre and making it their own. More often than not, the less interesting qualities of songs like “She’s Long Gone” allow them to serve as comfortable support for the more experimental inclusions on the album. The dissatisfaction with romance and the world at large that drew you into listening to the Black Keys in the first place is still there, along with the rhythms and the riffs and all that—it’s just that this time around, it’s much more refined, alluring and memorable.

Track List:
1. Everlasting Light
2. Next Girl
3. Tighten Up
4. Howlin’ For You
5. She’s Long Gone
6. Black Mud
7. The Only One
8. Too Afraid To Love You
9. Ten Cent Pistol
10. Sinister Kid
11. The Go Getter
12. I’m Not The One
13. Unknown Brother
14. Never Gonna Give You Up
15. These Days

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

80 / 100
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