The Black Keys headed to Muscle Shoals to record their sixth album, which makes all kinds of sense, since they’ve been driving for the sound of the original dirty South all along. I don’t think they’ve ever really achieved it — and I don’t think they get any closer with Brothers — but as a blues gateway for the Pitchfork generation, they’re performing an important public service, so we should all just stand back and let them do their thang.
Brothers, like previous entries in the Black Keys discography, offers side after side of steaming, sludgy electric blues, performed with such thorough conviction and massive scope that it’s always hard to believe all that noise is coming out of a pair of honkies from Akron. Minus the matching suits and covers-only repertoire, they’re sort of a Blues Brothers for the 21st century, introducing suburban kids to standards like “Leavin’ Trunk” without any of that pesky cratedigging. Hell, as often as not, Black Keys records sound like they’re spinning on a dust-covered turntable anyway.
Which is part of the problem for me. In 2010, if two guys go out of their way to make a pile of albums that sound like they were recorded in a dumpster, that’s just an affectation — which is fine, as long as it makes room for some kind of artistic motion, but in the Black Keys’ case, I can’t listen without feeling like I’m standing still. (Or, more to the point, feeling like putting on a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins record.) They’re great at copping a vibe, and they pick a fine one for Brothers, but a fuzzy riff and a stomping beat do not a song make — and even when the Keys deliver a kickass melody, as with this album’s opening track, “Everlasting Light,” they can’t resist burying it under a coat of grime.
I like grime. I like the blues. I even like the Black Keys. But I don’t love them, and I think I like them for the wrong reason: because of the musical memories they trigger. I mean, if a band’s music just makes you want to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, why not cut out the middleman?
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