Monday, May 31, 2010

Blast Furnace Soul: The Black Keys' Brothers

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney certainly spell it out on their new release with a cover that states, “This is an album by The Black Keys." The name of this album is Brothers with the back cover announcing: “These are the names of the songs on this album” and “These are the guys in the band.” Why they felt obligated to indicate precisely what the recording was all about remains part of the mystery surrounding the band and for that matter the music.

This record is a super-heated, funk-based album featuring 9 of 14 tracks recorded at the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. The Muscle Shoals “sound” always inspired many a struggling musician. The Rolling Stones were reborn here after recording "Brown Sugar" in 1969. Paul Simon wrote and recorded most of the songs from his debut-self titled, solo album featuring “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” bringing the power of gospel music and mixing it with the southern R&B with a dash of country for good measure. Due to its size, which isn’t much larger than the one-room Sun Studios in Memphis, Muscle Shoals requires your full attention as a musician. The close confines can either work against you, or help you focus if you’re a member of a multi-piece band. Ironically The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, can’t possibly do much work “off the floor” like a rock-n-roll band because they’re a duo. But what they do accomplish with this record is the “feeling” of a spontaneous band session.

Opening with the gospel-inflected “Everlasting Light," the Black Keys celebrate the tradition of Muscle Shoals with an inspired song juxtaposing the power of love with the power of Jesus. “She’s Long Gone” is soul-groove a la Zeppelin that is relentless: a guitar hook and a half. But the production is what this album is all about: heavy drums with a thud-like electric bass mixed with distorted guitars and bits of Hammond B-3. The instrumental “Black Mud” is a thematic anthem to all the heavy sounds of the post-Hendrix groups such as Wishbone Ash and Deep Purple. “The Go Getter” is a gritty swamp-blues of the first order: a steady backbeat supplemented by a repeated guitar lick. For me, the surprise track is “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the great Gamble & Huff song, first recorded by Jerry Butler and recorded by Isaac Hayes on his Black Moses album in 1971. The track is laden with heavy drums and bass with layers of a horn sections blasting in between the lyrics. It’s strangely similar to the Butler version, which I’m sure The Black Keys are referencing.

Brothers sounds like it is coming from a blast furnace in the middle of a steel factory. That is, until the last song “These Days” cools us down with a spiritual lament for a broken soul.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.

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