In its best moments, the Black Keys's Brothers is as ferocious and soulful an exploration of contemporary blues as anything in recent memory. It's also a record that speaks to the duo's fearlessness, and, at least on initial impression, it suggests that they have moved beyond their "transitional" phase with a new clarity of purpose. For an act as accomplished and progressive as the Keys, that kind of focus and vision makes Brothers one of 2010's strongest albums.
Having brought in Danger Mouse to produce their previous outing, Attack & Release, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney ventured to the legendary studios of Muscle Shoals for this largely DIY project. Danger Mouse's sole production credit here, "Tighten Up," is one of the set's highlights, underscoring Auerbach's ragged wails of "honey child" with a scintillating funk groove. But the bulk of the album proves that Auerbach and Carney are at their best when they rely on their own pinpoint-precise instincts. Their production is one of Brothers's strengths: Inspired flourishes like the harpsichord on "Too Afraid to Love You" fold effortlessly into the blues aesthetic. The percussion lines are really incidental to the deep rhythm guitar riffs, while the lead electric guitar lines always have ample breathing room.
Brothers gives the Keys plenty of space to roll around in the Alabama clay, and the overall dirtiness and lived-in soulfulness of the album's sound is perfectly matched to the songwriting. Standout cuts "Next Girl" and "Unknown Brother" trade equally in heartbreak, rage, and regret. Songs like "Afraid" and a jaw-dropping cover of Jerry Butler's "Never Gonna Give You Up" draw heavily from the vintage R&B sides that made Muscle Shoals famous, and they demonstrate the phenomenal growth in the Keys's writing. "Ten Cent Pistol" toys with blues conventions with its twisted narrative and vivid imagery: "There's nothing worse in this world/Than payback from a jealous girl/The laws of man, they don't apply/When blood gets in a woman's eye." Fully coming into their own as songwriters, the Keys do traditional blues tropes better than just about anyone.
The tempo and the quality drag just slightly in the album's middle section thanks to the sludgy instrumental break of "Black Mud" and the canned backbeat of "The Only One," but that's a minor compliant that ultimately speaks to how extraordinary the material that bookends the album is. An album that works as both a blisteringly smart genre study that combines classic and contemporary perspectives on blues, soul, and R&B and as just one hell of a rock record, Brothers reaffirms that the Black Keys belong in any serious conversation about America's finest bands.