My assignment this week was the album Brothers, by The Black Keys. So: the first thing I notice about Brothers is the blaring, harsh production on the vocals and some instruments. I know next to nothing about audio engineering and mastering, but to me it sounds like they deliberately spiked the input levels on those things so that the waveforms got clipped. Either that or they had a dial labeled “BLARE” on the console, and they turned that one all the way up. Either way, I found it an offputting sound, especially at first. I kept feeling like I was on the edge of the stage, for a band whose speakers had just blown out, but who couldn’t afford to get new ones.

It has to be intentional. There’s no way a sound like that happens by accident, not for the length of an entire album. So I got to thinking, what effect are they after? The distorted, fuzzed-out vocals have a sinister, eerie feel, keeping us at arm’s length while the deformed guitars howl with intensity. And it turns out this casts a peculiar shadow on the songs. Because I wasn’t allowed to hear a naturalistic tone, I couldn’t conflate the song with the singer. The sound created a kind of split consciousness, with the character narrating some feeling or story, and the wall of distortion either calling that story into question or shrouding it in heavy atmosphere.

Cover of Brothers

That works for these songs, because these are songs of desperation and dread. Take a song like “The Go Getter” — the lyrics alone are a dark portrait of an L.A. loser, very reminiscent of something that might have appeared on David & David’s Boomtown. But where David & David would have sung it without a filter, The Black Keys make its voice and bass sound broken. Under that layer, its darkness deepens.

Then, on the other side, listen to “Everlasting Light.” Lyrically, it is a straightfoward declaration of devotion. But the distortion is so heavy, the falsetto driven to such a frantic extreme, that I can’t hear it as a “silly love song.” It has a quality of intense neediness instead, an almost stalker-ish sense of wrong.

With that frame in mind, and once I’d gotten past my crotchety irritation at being denied anything that sounded like a pure voice, I came to really enjoy this album. Some favorites:

  • “Next Girl” – This was probably my favorite track on the album. It has such a satisfying, rocky stomp, and I love the lyrics too. Though I couldn’t help being reminded of something Lindsey Buckingham once said about his song “Never Going Back Again”: “That’s a very naive song. Never going back again? Sure. [laughs]”. Oh, your next girl will be nothing at all like your ex-girl? You’ll never make those mistakes again? Sure.
  • “I’m Not The One” – A more direct, less merciful update of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”
  • “These Days” – One of the least distorted vocals on the album, which makes me think it’s one of the most sincere songs. I love the sense of yearning, and the lyric “These blood red eyes / Don’t see so good / But what’s worse is if they could.”
  • “Tighten Up” – I can see why this one was the single. Many of the best songs on this album have either a great riff or a great groove, and this song has both.
  • “Too Afraid To Love You” – That harpsichord! What an unexpected sound, but somehow it works perfectly in this fear-drenched song.

So thanks for this assignment, Robby! Getting to know this album made me a fan of it.

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