THE BLACK KEYS: BROTHERS (2010)
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.
I suppose it must be hard for the general public to think of two guys as «brothers» when one is playing all the «real» instruments and singing all the vocals and the other one is «just» drumming, no matter how vital that drumming may be to the music (and, with all due respect to Patrick Carney, he ain't no Keith Moon). But more power to the band if slapping on a title like Brothers functions as a placebo to get the creative juice a-flowin'. Actually, for a short while there was a certain danger of The Black Keys breaking up — Auerbach released a solo album and Carney had serious family problems — but eventually, things got better, and, if the band members are to be believed, their personal turmoil only helped to improve the music.
There is one serious problem with Brothers: it is way too long. The running time of 55 minutes is the band's personal record, and a highly questionable one: when it's just one guy with a guitar and one other guy with a drumset, things are supposed to wrap up quickly. If you listen to Brothers on a one-song-per-day basis, you might think that there are no truly «weak» cuts here; but if taken together, the last 20 minutes will almost inevitably sound like a rehash of the first 30. Which is especially troublesome considering that, in actuality, Brothers further expands the Keys' musical vision — with Danger Mouse at the helm once again, there are new sounds, new influences, new emotions, and all of it without sacrificing the old spirit.
Beginning with the beginning, 'Everlasting Light' is generic folk blues at heart, but the coating is cool — a dry, crunchy tone beaten into a danceable pop-rock pattern, drumbeats merged with handclaps and an out-of-nowhere 'Come Together'-ish «ssh...!», credible attempts at falsetto crooning from Auerbach, and minimal, but atmospheric backing whoos and whaas from hip-hopper Nicole Wray (guest-starring here through her participation in «Blakroc», a joint rap-rock side project between the Keys and various hip-hop artists). No better illustration for the devil that is in the proverbial details. The crunch and simplicity firmly tie the song to the band's legacy and style, but the coating shows how successfully they manage to climb out of the rut that said legacy was beginning to turn into.
Likewise, the big hit single, 'Tighten Up', could have been a by-the-book roots-rock number with nothing but yer average «soul» to redeem it, if not for all the little things. The cute little Morricone-style whistling in the intro. Carney's melodic drum fills, raising tension. The in-between verses guitar riff that transforms the song into power pop before returning it back to R&B territory. The unpredictable key change for the coda. It is good to know that the boys are now open to the idea of having experimental fun in the studio.
Similar stylistic mergers characterize most of the material on Brothers. Hardcore blues-rock fans might be appalled, as well as blues-rock haters who firmly cherish the idea that the only thing that will help traditional blues-rock to get better is a terrorist attack on the Chicago Blues Festival (no hostages taken, preferably). We ought to respect those religious feelings — but there is nothing wrong, either, about welcoming intelligent ways of merging blues and pop like the band does here on 'Ten Cent Pistol' (a catchy, hummable chorus there, within a song whose basic melody, lyrics, and attitude are all geared towards dark blues), or on the slightly martial 'Howlin' For You', which is what The Cars could have originally sounded like, if only they'd tacked their tacky keyboards on early British R&B rather than early British pop-rock.
That said, I repeat that the bag of tricks is not really full enough to accommodate 55 minutes worth of new Black Keys songs. Individually, none of them register as masterpieces; collectively, there's just too many of them, and, in the end, I walk away from Brothers with a sense of indignant admiration that is almost enough to convert the thumbs up to its opposite — here be an album that chooses excellent ways to dispel boredom, but gets so caught up in the excitement that, in the end, it just gets plain boring to watch it chase away boredom. (It does not help, either, that most of the tracks on which experimentation is essentially suspended in favor of «soul», e. g. the heart-on-the-sleeve ballad 'These Days' and the personal confession 'Unknown Brother', are somehow all grouped at the end). Which all translates to a complex, but very often felt (judging by peer reviews) flaw — and kudos to Dan and Patrick for acknowledging the fact by exterminating said flaw on their next record.
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