The Black Keys: “Brothers” (review)

The Black Keys
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.