The Black Keys: “Brothers”

Sometimes, the mentor becomes the mentoree. It isn’t blasphemous to say that Dylan copped a lot of his blues chops from guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—indeed, if his first few albums were modeled after the Woody Guthrie blueprint, latter-day records are equally indebted to the electric blues masters—but what’s talked about less is how Dylan went on to be an inspiration of sorts for those old pros—though, admittedly, it was against their will. Dylan famously went electric in 1964, infusing his folky persona with all the mayhem and frenzy of garage rock, and it wasn’t but a few years later that Waters and Wolf were doing something much the same, releasing—at the behest of their label bosses—albums that snaked their blues leanings through the smoke and mirrors of then-popular psychedelic effects and Hendrix-style guitar meltdowns. Albums like Water’s Electric Mud, or This is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album.

They sold okay, but blues purists tend to consider them as abominations, and fifty years after the fact, nobody talks about ‘em much. That makes them strange inspirations for a new Black Keys album, but it seems to be their inspiration nonetheless—and not just because Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney’s Brothers lifts the template of that Howlin’ Wolf album for its text-heavy, matter-of-fact album art. Are they still a blues band? Well, yeah. But the increasingly-hip duo is less about warts-and-all blasts of bluesy, in-the-garage fury as they are crafting an album that celebrates sound as much as song, that clothes their blues muscle in weird cinematic effects and flourishes of psychadelia.

It really isn’t that surprising, or unnatural; even ignoring the fact that these guys are clearly students of the blues, and that dipping into this oft-ignored patch of blue history is an organic progression, fans have long known that the Black Keys have never really been as monochromatic as their color-coded name and two-man set-up would suggest. There was Auerbach’s solo album, of course, with its hints of country and folk and pop, as well as the album they made with Danger Mouse, the glossed-up Attack & Release, to say nothing of their oddball hip-hop detour as Blakroc. All of this suggests that the Black Keys have musical interests well beyond the realm of traditional two-man blues set-ups or garage rock in the White Stripes mold, and Brothers is the natural culmination of their experimentation with new colors and sounds—every bit as sound-oriented as Attack & Release, as varied as Auerbach’s Keep it Hid, and as grimy and gutbucket-dirty as the cheerfully vulgar Blakroc.

Read the rest at Stereo Subversion.

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