Black Keys Play to Their Strengths on 'Brothers'

The Black Keys

Brothers (Nonesuch)

In 2008, tired of being the new millennium version of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Black Keys made the (then) ill-considered decision to force their free-range indie blues jams into more concise songwriting. Under the auspices of producer Danger Mouse, Attack & Release was a noble—and occasionally interesting—failure, but a failure nonetheless, because it seemed geared to the strengths of the producer (of Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and Gorillaz fame) rather than those of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach themselves. The result was an album of uncomfortably neat, weirdly sheened club-pop created by a couple of schlubby white blues-rockers.

But the Keys are nothing if not quick studies. Their new record, which they produced themselves along with Mark Neill, plays to their strengths—blues and white-boy soul and '70s pop and rock—selectively breaking off brittle chunks of the band's best moments and then extrapolating, refining it all into songs with more brevity and focus than anything Carney and Auerbach have done to date. The result comes off like the best AM radio station you never heard, with dreamy allusions to Motown, deft blues guitar breaks, Al Kooper-style Hammond, blaxploitation themes, the Eagles and Bad Company and Rita Coolidge, all of it sewn together by Auerbach's eerily striking voice, which has the capacity to sound like dozens of different bygone pop and soul crooners. Brothers is such a powerful achievement for the Black Keys, it makes one wonder not just what will they do next, but what can they do next?