The Black Keys’ Brothers turns 10

This is an article about the album Brothers, by the band The Black Keys, which turns 10 today.

Note: an abbreviated version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Why did it take so long for The Black Keys to break through?  Drummer Patrick Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach got their start in the mass boom of the early-00s garage rock revival, but it took that movement impotently flaming out at the decade’s end for them to achieve actual tangible crossover success, rather than the adoration of a small cult and the traditionalist support of critical outlets like Rolling Stone and Time.  Eight years and six albums to finally be rid of those off-brand White Stripes comparisons, to be playing regularly for 8,000 people rather than 8 people, to become an omnipresent force on a rock radio that had zero time for them beforehand.  Considering how I’m pretty sure even new-born babies come out of the womb immediately humming the riff to “Gold on the Ceiling” by this point from sheer commercial ubiquity, why did The Black Keys not blow up sooner?

I have a few theories.  The crossover success of The White Stripes, the passive-aggressive feud between the pair, and the constant comparisons made by various media outlets definitely won’t have helped – no doubt if this kinda thing had started up today, the Keys would’ve received many a “we have The White Stripes at home” burn.  Whilst they would eventually dive headfirst into the kinds of sync-licensing and band shit-talking one expects from world-conquering Rock Stars, they were initially very hesitant to play that media game.  In their earliest days, they famously turned down a $100,000 offer to soundtrack a mayonnaise commercial under the belief it would damage their credibility with the radio stations that weren’t giving a toss about them.  Then there’s the fact that, whilst they were more of a garage rock band than many of the bands lumped into that movement (their first four records were cut in their own basements and an abandoned tire factory in their hometown of Akron), their reverential lo-fi blues rock just wasn’t as cool or exhilarating or sexy as the other revival sounds coming out of New York City at the time.  The Black Keys were, in their own way and I mean this as a compliment, classicist dorks who make music for dads.  You put them next to even 2006 Strokes, they are gonna get blown off the goddamned page in image and style and excitement.

But never let it be said that dependable workhorses don’t eventually get their moment in the sun.  For the Keys, you can put that down to three major developments.  First, and perhaps most crucially, 2008’s Attack & Release, their first album recorded in an actual professional studio with an actual professional producer (the then-beloved Danger Mouse), saw them shifting their sound into something more overtly produced and swampier than their previous raw and ready records.  There were still some classic fuzzed-up clumsy blues ragers (“I Got Mine” and “Strange Times” in particular) but even those had a polish and surround quality to their sound that would’ve been alien on something like Rubber Factory, whilst moodier numbers like “Psychotic Girl” or the “Lies” brought in bluegrass and gospel touches whilst utilising space in the mix as a deliberate dramatic accentuation to the songs rather than a mere product of lo-fi recording techniques.  It still sounds like a Black Keys record, but one that’s more open to expanding the duo’s rigid ideas of songwriting which would later pay more tangible dividends.

Second, Carney and Auerbach took a break from each other for close to a year following that album.  Auerbach put out a solo record without telling Carney, a personal betrayal that led to them not speaking for months.  Carney, for his part, was dealing with a rough divorce from his first wife who, to hear the band members tell it, was a vindictive serial cheater driving a wedge between the childhood friends.  Auerbach and Carney would eventually reconcile, their bond stronger than ever and their communication more direct and open than it apparently had been before, especially after Carney heard Auerbach’s lyrics to the first song they would cut for their next album, “Next Girl.”  To symbolise that fact, the album would be called Brothers, and it turns 10 today.

That third development can be found the second one hits play on opener “Everlasting Light:” The Black Keys started writing and producing monster tunes.  Up until Brothers, it’s fair to say that the Keys prioritised stripped-down groove and a gritty authenticity over the sort of thing radio programmers start slathering in commercial glee from.  Groove is still a prevailing force throughout Brothers, but Auerbach and Carney manage to fashion those grooves more often than not into maddeningly effective and catchy songs.  Perhaps you can credit the recording environment, with the band and co-producer Mark Neill working mostly in the then-disused Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which was famous for its construction messing with bass sounds in such a way that song arrangements had to be constructed primarily around both the borked acoustics.  Perhaps you could credit the 2009 rap-rock collab-album Blakroc that the Keys provided all the music for, forcing them to tighten up their chops and pen direct hooks that keep hitting with effectiveness no matter how often they must be looped.  Perhaps the growing popularity of media companies requesting their songs for adverts and soundtracks finally caused them get over themselves and unashamedly write some goddamned pop songs.

Whatever the case may have been, that opening seven song run of Brothers is the Keys firing on all cylinders.  Whilst there may be a warm vinyl dust coating lathered over the album as a whole, of the kind that you still hear utilised by similar throwback acts (e.g. Benjamin Booker and Leon Bridges), the actual production and instrumentation of these songs has a care and digital cleanliness to even the fuzziest of moments that makes them sound absolutely massive.  “Everlasting Light” (featured in the pilot to Longmire and the opening of Misfits’ third season) has those gliding feminine shoo-wop harmonies.  “Next Girl” (featured in Saints Row the Third) has a bassline that is just pure filth and runs its guitar through a tone and tremolo that causes the outro shred to sound like a hole in the earth is opening up and swallowing the song around it.  “Howlin’ for You” (featured in Chuck, Limitless, the pilots of Lucifer and Once Upon a Time, Love Island twice and so many more) is a shamelessly cheesy, lyrically nonsensical horn-dog of a thing which cleverly switches between three distinct yet complimentary guitar tones for its primary progression and whose drums have an incessant room-next-door full-blast click-track snap.  “She’s Long Gone” (featured in Boyhood, Person of Interest, Gossip Girl, Need for Speed: The Run and more besides) engineers its chorus riff to sound like a harmonica has astral-projected itself into a guitar.

Oh, and of course there’s “Tighten Up” (featured in FIFA 11, the pilot of The Expanse, Spring Breakers, I Am Number Four, The Vampire Diaries, and approximately 1 in every 4 rock radio stations across the world right this second).  Even on a record as accessible and bleachers-aiming as this one, “Tighten Up” still stands out as an oddball.  Written at the last minute during a session with Danger Mouse (in his only contribution to the record), Carney freely admits that they consciously wrote “something catchy that could get played in the radio” which, yeah, job done there.  But it’s also a low-key weird little song when deconstructed.  Sure, that whistle lead-off is prime radio bait of the kind Foster the People would kickstart their career with just four months later, and the thing is so produced that you can bounce pennies off it.  But there’s no real chorus to sing along to, the bass that anchors so many of the record’s other big songs is frequently absent, the time signature occasionally switches without warning from 4/4 to 3/4, and the breakdown to the outro sees the song’s initial gangly gait awkwardly transition into a strut.  It all sounds great, of course, but it’s a reminder that even when they were aiming for the mainstream, the Keys stubbornly insisted on doing it their way.

There’s a 60s R&B vibe to a lot of Brothers’ best moments, with Auerbach revealing a heretofore unknown falsetto that’s as different from his regular baritone as it is shockingly strong, even before the penultimate number is given over to a Jerry Butler cover (“Never Gonna Give You Up,” featured on One Tree Hill and the third series finale of Luther).  I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Turner, when working on the Arctic Monkeys’ big American breakthrough AM, was unconsciously aiming to replicate the sound and vibe of this as much as he was Dr. Dre and Ike Turner.  Sometimes that poppy forwardness ends up being paired with the psychedelia touches from Attack & Release to produce potent combinations like the pretty mellotron spiral of “The Only One” or the swampy instrumental Southern jam of “Black Mud” (not featured in anything but was nominated for a Grammy).  The best tracks here are the ones which function as shameless hook machines, where you can slice them into any 30 second extract and still get a real shameless serotonin rush – something that advertisers and music supervisors realised and exploited in droves, in case you couldn’t already tell – since lyrically Auerbach still isn’t a particularly deep or interesting poet with a wide range of subject matter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not listen to Brothers in full all that much.  As alluded to, it’s not a deep record, trafficking largely in big dumb hooks and riffage with cliched subject matter – the number of songs not about Auerbach being horny for slightly crazy ladies or disdainful of very crazy ladies can be counted on one hand.  Sonically, Alabama Shakes would break through two years later doing this kind of psychedelic blues rock R&B much more enrichingly, even before taking into account the ace card of Brittany Howard.  Primarily, this is a hilariously front-loaded record.  All Black Keys records are, admittedly, front-loaded with the most arresting numbers before descending into agreeably fine filler on the way to the climax, but Brothers is 15 tracks and 55 minutes long (still their longest record to date) with a midsection that gets badly bogged down in uninteresting midtempo slogs following “Only One” until it rallies at the eleventh hour for “Unknown Brother” (featured in season two of Parenthood) and “Never Gonna…”

A few years back, once-semi-talented noted asshole Mark Kozelek famously dissed The War on Drugs by declaring them purveyors of “beer-commercial lead-guitar shit.”  Whilst he refused to explain what he meant by that, I choose to believe it refers to the kind of rock music that feels more suited to soundtracking endless series of adverts and movies and barbeques than providing real lasting emotional connection.  He’s way off the mark applying that label to War on Drugs, but it’s honestly not that inaccurate with regards to The Black Keys.  Unlike Kozelek, I don’t see this necessarily as an insult.  There’s nothing wrong with big dumb ridiculous empty fun sometimes so long as it’s sold with enough conviction, the right amount of self-awareness to negate a sensation of repellent naked corporateness, and craft so strong that it overrides any scepticism and sweeps the listener up in the fun.  The Keys’ 2011 follow-up, El Camino, is perhaps their high watermark as an album since it takes the framework of Brothers and amps it up to just the right amount of silly whilst trimming the most plodding fat that holds this record back.

Besides, never let it be said that the Keys aren’t self-aware and don’t know what they’re doing.  In January of 2011, just before that year’s Grammys where Brothers won Best Alternative Music Album, the duo appeared on an episode of The Colbert Report along with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig to fight over whose record was superior based on the metric of whose songs have appeared in the more adverts.  If anything, maybe the reason why The Black Keys took so long to break through may be because they were too early to the party.  After all, there stood on national television The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend, two of the new coolest bands in America whose coolness came from playing self-consciously uncool music really bloody well.  Maybe it wasn’t just the Keys who needed to get over themselves somewhat.

Callie Petch knows love is the coal that makes this train roll.

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