The Black Keys: “Brothers” (review)

The Black Keys
Brothers
Nonesuch CD





After production help from Dangermouse on their 2008 recording Attack and Release, as well as some time apart in various side projects, the Black Keys return refreshed on the (principally) self-helmed Nonesuch release Brothers.

It’s be easy to oversimplify one’s assessment of the duo’s latest as a “return to their blues roots.” And while it’s undoubtedly true that Brothers reemphasizes the blues and roots music proclivities on display from the Black Keys’ inception, the record also displays a number of intriguing wrinkles that demonstrate the Keys’ versatility. Some of these are exemplified by imaginative touches of instrumentation. There’s the delicious surprise of harpsichord filigrees on “Too Afraid to Love You,” a delicate accompaniment to a muscular, almost outsized reverberant vocal.

In its intro, the hook gets whistled on “Tighten Up,” a song guest-produced by Dangermouse that revels in a languid backbeat and thickly chunked rhythm guitar shuffle. The insouciant whistling gives way to deft lead guitar and a more four-to-the-bar groove. But just as this straightforward rocking settles in, we are treated to a space-age analog synth coda that spaces out the proceedings anew.

Elsewhere, elegant simplicity reigns supreme. On “The Go Getter,” the Keys emphasize their duo dynamic, with a tight roots-rock drum groove undergirding a soulful vocal and tasty guitar breaks. “Black Mud” features a post-psych swamp rock ambience that is grittily determined; yet it remains a heady environment for tangy solos.

While the Keys’ originals display fine, often memorable, songwriting, their taste in covers is exquisite. Brothers only includes one, but it’s a classic: Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna’ Give You Up.” An incandescently lilting vocal is poised against a rhythm section that replicates 60s R&B with pitch perfect accuracy, all the while imparting a sense of the Black Keys’ own musical identity. It’s the way a cover ought to be done – reminding us of the original artist while never letting us forget that this is a new rendition. Likewise, on Brothers the Black Keys are happy to pay tribute to their musical ancestors. But they concurrently demonstrate a freshness and vitality that suggests that they are indeed worthy heirs to the post-blues/roots rock tradition.

Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina CD review

Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina
The Angel’s Message to Me
Capitan Records CD

Most probably know Geoff Farina better for his work in the indie rock genre with outfits Karate and Secret Stars; likewise, Chris Brokaw is associated with Come and Codeine. But both have worked solo in recent years. Here, the guitarists record unplugged renditions of acoustic blues and old gospel tunes.

The textures that the duo make are beguiling, evocative of such acoustic luminaries as Robbie Basho, Richard Bishop, and Stephen Basho-Junghans. Occasionally, their performances, particularly the vocals, demonstrate a bit less swing than the originals tend to favor. A case in point is the title tune, a piece by Reverend Gary Davis in which Farina and Brokaw emphasize an undulating groove with considerably limpidity. It’s an adroit rendering, yet one certainly feels that it lacks a bit of heft. Another potential stumbling block is their preference for major thirds instead their flatted cousin, the ‘blues third;’ this may make for easier tuning of harmony singing but as a result things sound less gritty.

That said, it is clear that both guitarists are well schooled in the source genre. And occasionally, they provide alternatives to the expected choices that are most pleasing. An example is their rendition of “In the Evening,” where tasty chord voicings substitute for standard blues progressions, shedding new light on an old classic. In addition, on “Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger,” they bring the vocal line back to its essence, closer to its original notation in the 19th Century Sacred Harp, denuding it of a lot of dross that’s accumulated in successive renditions over the years. For “reformed” blues lovers instead of purists, The Angel’s Message in Me is nevertheless on the whole a successful venture.

Mose Allison: New LP after a 12-year hiatus




Mose Allison
The Way of the World
Anti CD

I saw Mose Allison live a couple of times in the mid-nineties. I was struck that, despite decades in the music business, the singer-pianist was so utterly at ease with being himself; without a hint of the ‘reinvention’ that many so many artists attempt. His combination of beatnik jazz patter and bluesy piano riffs was well worn, but never seemed stale.

Allison is 82 now, and hasn’t released a studio recording in a dozen years. But producer/performer Joe Henry managed to coax him out of retirement for one more set of songs. The resulting CD, The Way of the World demonstrates that Allison is still a talented performer and thoughtful songwriter. His lyrics takes an unflinching look at the vagaries of aging, the daily disappointments of the 24-hour news cycle, and the resilient power and omnipresent bewilderments of love. On the delightful blues paean to senior moments, “My Brain,” Allison sings “My brain is losing power,” but it is hard for the listener to accept this; he seems as sharp as ever.

MP3: Modest Proposal

Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina; new CD + video

The Angel's Message to Me

Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina
The Angel’s Message to Me
Capitan Records CD

Most probably know Geoff Farina better for his work in the indie rock genre with outfits Karate and Secret Stars; likewise, Chris Brokaw is associated with Come and Codeine. But both have worked solo in recent years. Here, they record unplugged renditions of acoustic blues and old gospel tunes.

The textures that the duo make are beguiling, evocative of such acoustic luminaries as Robbie Basho, Richard Bishop, and Stephen Basho-Junghans. Occasionally, their perfomances, particularly the vocals, demonstrate a bit less swing than the originals tend to favor. That said, it is clear that both guitarists are well schooled in the source genre. The Angel’s Message in Me is on the whole a very successful venture.

Here are Farina & Brokaw at a recent gig at Tonic (NYC), performing the title tune off of the album, a song by the Reverend Gary Davis.