The Black Keys’ Brothers pulled together every strand of their genre-jumping genius

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the Black Keys’ Brothers when it came out. Was this a smart pivot back to the Black Keys’ creative strengths, after some time spent noodling around with only partially successful side projects? Or was it a calculated, and maybe unsatisfying, cash-in retrenchment?

I decided, some time after the album’s release on May 18, 2010, that it was first. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney returned, in many ways, to the Black Keys’ template — the blue-eyed soul (“She’s Long Gone”), the lo-fi atmospherics — but that doesn’t mean these well-known acolytes of the urban mid-century blues cliche have stopped hybridizing black music into modern rock. They’ve just skipped forward a few decades into the 1970s — complete with blaxploitation grooves and ghostly new Curtis Mayfield-esque vocals from Auerbach. It sparked a complete return to form inside Brothers, even while advancing the Black Keys’ core sound.

“Everlasting Light,” this project’s opening track, puts that soul-brother falsetto in front of a scraggly disco-loving garage band. Then, there’s the bell-bottom menace of “Next Girl,” which adds this expansive keyboard groove to a roaring fuzz guitar. This stuff is as fiercely honest, and as throwback funky, as its stark cover art.

The bulk of Brothers, this Akron, Ohio duo’s sixth release, was recorded at the legendary Alabama Muscle Shoals studios — birthplace of Me-Decade-Era classics from everybody from the Rolling Stones to James Brown, from Willie Nelson to Boz Scaggs, from Paul Simon to the Staple Singers. That richly diverse legacy plays out during interesting amalgams like “Howlin’ for You,” which crashes Gary Glitter stadium-shaking rhythms into the mix. Sure, stuff like “Black Mud” might be nothing more than another too-familiar Black Keys dirty boogie. But Dan Auerbach’s involving new experiments with the upper range of his voice continue on “The Only One,” a lonesome cry for a love long-gone.

And ultimately, moments like that sold me. More than once, Auerbach stopped me cold with these raw, almost bereft admissions — “I am the bluest of blues,” he sings. “Every day, a different way to lose” — only to knock me back on my heels again with a starkly defiant retort.

The grinding “Sinister Kid” sounds just like its name. And even the return of Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, works: “Tighten Up” is a haunted but unafraid dirge, and far superior to most anything on their too-smooth 2008 collaboration Attack and Release. An astute Dan Auerbach doesn’t so much update the turn-of-the-1970s Jerry Butler classic “Never Gonna Give You Up,” as pay lasting, afro-shaking tribute. The honest ache of the Black Keys’ take on “These Days” could have echoed out of any old AM radio.

Taken together, Brothers ended up as the Black Keys’ most direct and satisfying effort since 2004’s Rubber Factory — and, I’m starting to think, maybe their best ever. They did it by going back, just not all the way back.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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