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More Info:The maturation of the Black Keys as record makers and performers has been both subtle and startling. With their 2008 Nonesuch release 'Attack & Release' - the fifth album of their eight-year career which doubled the sales of their previous album and Nonesuch debut 'Magic Potion' - guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney illustrated the durability of their few-frills sound, a mysterious and heavy brew of seventies-vintage rock, classic R&B and timeless, downhearted blues. Producer and pal Danger Mouse, their first outside collaborator, didn't try to reinvent their sound but further isolated its essence with the help of a few carefully chosen guest players and some retro-modern electronic gear. It didn't need to get slicker to get better, or, as the Boston Globe put it, ''Attack & Release' proves that cleaning up the boys still won't stop them from tracking mud all over the house.'
While the Stones took over the new release spotlight last week with their Exile on Main Street reissue, the new Black Keys album, Brothers, takes a similar recipe as its 1972 predecessor - a steamy, stripped-down blend of Motown and Memphis soul influences and the blues - and turns it into a similar dish, but with a flavor all its own. Like Exile, Brothers goes on a bit too long, with a fair amount of filler thrown in to pad the gems, but the diamonds in this mine shine brighter than most they've previously brought to the table.
The first four songs are the best of the bunch. In the first, "Everlasting Light," the Keys push the recording levels way past the red zone giving every sound a thick layer of distorted fuzz. But yet, in the midst of the molasses, Dan Auerbach's newly-acquired falsetto vocals soar over a strident groove, and it makes me think of a marching band interrupting a Sunday church service in the deep South (at least, that's how I would like to imagine the video). "Next Girl" pops like a '70s blaxploitation flick soundtrack. Slashy wah-wah guitar lines counterpoint straight-up blues riffs as Auerbach sings, "my next girl / will be nothing like my ex-girl" and sounding like Bill Withers in primetime. The first single, "Tighten Up," produced by their BlakRoc collaborator Danger Mouse, is the closest thing to indie rock found here, but even this has the raw overloaded feel of a scratchy old Motown 45. Those of a certain vintage might remember the first time they dropped the needle on, say, Stevie's "Signed, Sealed Delivered" and how the energy simply exploded out of the speakers. Kinda like that. Although I do wish Auerbach could have come up with a monster chorus instead of subbing with pedestrian guitar lines. The song just begs for it.
Speaking of guitars, it is remarkable how many different tones and effects Auerbach pulls out of his case on Brothers, and this is especially evident on the Gary Glitter-y "Howlin' For You," where one axe is set on high-speed tremolo while the other gets a vicious trebly fuzz treatment, which, when combined, sound like bees desperately trying to escape the hive.
After the these four stellar openers, things start getting a little more hit and miss. The skunky trash blues of earlier BK albums returns with "She's Long Gone," and some sweet slow burners emerge in the form of "I'm Not the One," "These Days" and a Jerry Butler cover, "Never Gonna Give You Up," the latter of which spotlights Auerbach's six-string prowess and occasionally reveals the limitations of his falsetto. I hinted earlier that the Keys could've used a producer to help them edit a bit: the bland "Ten Cent Pistol" could be a Robert Cray outtake, "Black Mud" is a frivolous instrumental, "The Go Getter" and "Unknown Brother," although both decent, could have also been trimmed to make Brothers a five-star home run. Still, it's right up there fighting Rubber Factory as the Keys' best release yet, and with its liberal infusion of soul elements, Brothers takes a big step forward from the blues-soaked garage rock we have come to expect from them.