On Brothers, The Black Keys change their tune without losing their soul 

Rubber Match

Rubber Match

The more things change ... well, you know the rest. So even as The Black Keys grow, expanding sonically, experiencing unprecedented success with their new album, Brothers, and (perhaps) following LeBron James in abandoning the Akron, Ohio, environs that birthed them, they remain at their core the same dirty, no-nonsense blues-based rockers they've always been.

Their sound is grounded in artless, from-the-gut minimalism, crisply expressed in the new album's cover, which over a black background states simply, "This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers."

The duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney grew up just a few houses away from each other in Akron. It's an unglamorous town that, if not necessarily dirty, given its steadily declining fortunes since its rubber-making halcyon days, might best be shot in sepia tones. While not nostalgists, the Keys sound similarly rooted in the past, mining an approach equally primal and timeless.

When the band signed with Warner Brothers imprint Nonesuch for 2006's Magic Potion, they were already perhaps feeling they'd reached the limits of their riff-heavy primitivism. They enlisted Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) to produce 2008's Attack & Release, recording an eclectic, layered, somewhat atmospheric album that exploded preconceptions and focused more on songcraft than ever before.

In its wake they went their separate ways. Auerbach recorded a solo album (2009's Keep It Hid) and produced Jessica Lea Mayfield's debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. Carney inaugurated his side project Drummer with their debut, Feel Good Together. The two reconnected by recording the hip-hop collaboration Blakroc with producer Damon Dash and a host of MCs including Mos Def, Raekwon, and GZA, among others.

Though there had been some friction — mainly caused by Carney's mind-state after his short-lived marriage ended in divorce — they rediscovered how well they worked together, and grew, in their own words, closer than they'd ever been. Most of the Blakroc songs began with drums and bass, rather than guitar, mining a deeper groove-based approach, and that carried over into the Brothers sessions, which were begun just days after finishing up Blakroc's self-titled album.

They'd been listening to a lot of hip-hop and '60s soul (Auerbach hates any R&B forged after 1971), and Brothers reflects that. Auerbach explores singing falsetto on tracks like "Never Going to Give You Up" and "Only One," something he first experimented with backing Mayfield on her album. The deep-rutted soul grooves ache — sounding like Carney's breakup-album-by-proxy on tracks like "Next Girl" and the funky, undulating "I'm Not the One."

They conceive a rich sound embellished with keyboards, muscular bass lines and a variety of overdubs like vibes and harpsichord, as Auerbach's riffs take a backseat, subordinated to the most well-crafted tunes they've ever written. Nearly everyone agrees it's their best release — critics, fans, the Keys themselves — and it opened at No. 3 on Billboard, their best-selling debut to date.

They've enlisted former Mighty Imperials bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels, to recreate the Brothers songs live. (They still perform the older songs as a duo.) Carney's settled on New York's Lower East Side in the wake of his divorce, and Auerbach's considering a move to Nashville to increase his production opportunities. (He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer several weeks ago that "nothing's set in stone.")

But while you can take the boy out of the city, you'll never take the city out of the man. Auerbach said as much to the Plain Dealer: "When you're from Akron, you fight a little bit harder," he said. And on their latest effort, The Black Keys certainly come out swinging.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.


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