Six Years Ago: The Black Keys Rediscover the Blues With Their Mainstream Breakthrough ‘Brothers’
Auerbach (vocals, guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums) weren’t even a decade into their career, but they had polished their two piece garage sound into a distinctive but still fuzzy groove. Auerbach’s overdriven vocals and reverb-soaked guitar found a perfect foil in Carney’s primitive beats. There’s nothing here you couldn’t do yourself for a couple of bucks, and that seemed like entirely the point.
But sounds can be deceiving. Brothers was recorded in the essentially empty but unquestionably famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama, a legendary space that hadn’t been used for three decades. The crew had to truck in all of their own gear (much of it digital) in order to make a record that sounded like it came off the cuff and from a time long past. That mix of old and modern extended to the album’s packaging, clearly a nod to The Howlin’ Wolf Album, yet equally modern.
Lead single “Tighten Up” shares a title with the Archie Bell and the Drells classic, but that’s where the comparisons end. Viewed through the lens of Carney’s recent (and bitter) divorce, lyrics like “I wanted love I needed love” take on a different poignancy, but concluding that the track (or Brothers in general) is down on love would be a mistake.
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Or maybe not. “The Next Girl’s” protestations that she “will be nothing like my ex girl” suggest that maybe one or both of the Keys were working out some psychic business on Brothers. Allegedly, recording “The Next Girl” was the catalyst that pulled Carney out of his post-divorce blues and into the frame of mind necessary to get the album recorded.
The album’s centerpiece is “Howlin’ for You,” a half glam rock stomp, half stadium chant that so infectious it should be monitored by the CDC. The track quickly went viral on the back of a movie trailer-style video that showcased the Black Keys as more than just another brooding band with a pocketful of blues influences. “Howlin'” became the go-to accompaniment for a host of film, television, and video games, making it perhaps the best known track in the Black Keys’ catalog.
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Speaking of the blues, much is made of Auerbach’s love of the genre. Whether that’s a compliment or a criticism varies from critic to critic; regardless, it’s an overly-reductive criticism of both the singer and the Black Keys. The band’s cover of the Gamble and Huff classic “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a hit for Jerry Butler back in ’68, is respectful but not fawning, for example. The Keys aren’t one trick ponies: They’re as well-versed in soul and R&B as they are the blues.
Fifteen tracks–17 if you count the bonus tracks–and not a dud in the bunch. Brothers was a monster, selling over a million copies in the U.S. alone and propelling the Black Keys out of the clubs and into arenas. If that wasn’t validation enough, the album went on to win three of the five Grammys for which it was nominated, including Best Alternative Music Album.
The band has remained relatively quiet since the release of their last album, ’14’s Turn Blue. Auerbach and Carney turned up at the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony to induct Steve Miller, a decision they later claimed to regret. Fall 2016 might see the release of Murder Ballads, a soundtrack Auerbach wrote to accompany an indie comic.
As for new Black Keys music; well, we don’t know, but we hold out hope that more is coming soon. Dan promised to be our everlasting light, after all.