In May last year, Brothers, the sixth album by The Black Keys, turned 10. It is a memorable album from the duo. For one, there’s its stark cover art: just two sentences against a black background. “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” Spare, no-frills, minimalist. And a bit reminiscent of the cover art of the late great Howlin’ Wolf’s 1969 album, simply titled The Howlin’ Wolf Album, whose cover said in bold black typeface: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”
Wolf’s album cover was a marketing strategy by a subsidiary label of the famed Chess Records that published it. The album wasn’t regarded very highly, although it has some of the most popular songs sung by the blues maestro (Spoonful, Smokestack Lightning, The Red Rooster and Back Door Man). The Black Keys’ Brothers, on the other hand, pole-vaulted the band to commercial success. It also marked a move back by the band (Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals, and Patrick Carney on drums) to the minimalist, heavily blues-influenced and raw sound of their early albums.
Last month, The Black Keys released a deluxe remastered anniversary edition of Brothers, its original songs enhanced by two new ones, Keep My Name Outta Your Mouth and Black Mud Part II. Ten years later, the album still sounds fresh, relevant and instantly accessible. Auerbach and Carney began as an Akron, Ohio-based blues rock band. Their sound was uncompromisingly brutal and purist. Comparisons have been drawn between their variety of rock and that of another duo, the erstwhile White Stripes; its guitarist and vocalist, Jack White, and Auerbach have, incidentally, sparred in the past, partly owing to those very same comparisons in the media. In the beginning, however, the Keys were less experimental than the Stripes and their soundscapes (both characterised by the dominance of guitar and drums) were quite different. But by the time The Black Keys recorded their fifth album, Attack & Release, which was produced by Danger Mouse, they had begun experimenting with a trippier texture and fluidity in their soundscape. Just when you thought the shift was there to stay, however, came Brothers, which harked back to the raucous rawness of their early albums but was tempered with some amount of newfound smoothness.
Everlasting Light, the opener in the remastered edition, defines the sound on the album. Beginning with Carney’s hi-hat (a combination of two cymbals and a pedal), and followed by Auerbach’s fuzz-laden guitar, the song is a simple one expressing love (Let me be your everlasting light/ Your sun when there is none/ I’m a shepherd for you/ And I’ll guide you through/ Let me be your everlasting light), but with its locomotive-like rhythm and lyrics delivered in a falsetto style, it is deep and satisfying. And by the time the song winds down, you know you will like this album.
That opening track sets the stage for the rest of the album. It is as if the Keys took their early-era unpolished raw sound, added their mid-era textural experimentation, and created a soundscape that was as much a blues purist’s delight as it is sophisticated and nuanced. Tracks such as the old-fashioned, organ-enhanced The Only One can come across as being at once psychedelic and bluesy. In Too Afraid To Love You, a harpsichord adds a chamber music flavour to the tune. In She’s Long Gone, the garage rock sound of the guitar riffs is an unlikely complement to Auerbach’s more conventionally blues-style singing.
The reissue of a deluxe edition of Brothers is a boon for Keys’ fans. The two new songs that have been added on it aren’t really new. They emanated in the original 2010 Brothers’ recording sessions but were not released at the time. They could easily have been, because both fit seamlessly into the original track list. The deluxe re-release of Brothers clocks in at a little over an hour (Keys’ songs are typically not very long). With those and the re-mastering, the new Brothers album is like a well-revised new edition of a favourite book that you would love to re-read and, especially, discover in an enhanced form one of the best creations of a band you are already a fan of.
There have been rumours and rumblings about the future of The Black Keys for a while. Since Brothers came out in 2010, the duo has released three albums. The latest of these, Let’s Rock, came out in 2019, after a five-year hiatus during which both got busy with production work, and Auerbach also with a couple of solo projects or albums with his other band, the Arcs. Let’s Rock is a brighter than usual Keys album, its sound more upbeat and vibrant, but with the band’s purist-style blues basis still intact.
Besides his solo work and side projects, Auerbach, 41, has worked as a producer and sound engineer with dozens of other musicians. Carney, 40, too has produced for several indie bands. But their best work, as most fans will probably agree, is when they come together as The Black Keys. After listening once again to Brothers, one hopes there will be more albums from the band as it turns 20 this year.
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