The Black Keys
In nearly a decade of working together, vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have developed a songwriting chemistry that's reached a creative peak in their sixth and latest album, a tight, cohesive effort and possibly one of the best this year so far.
Brothers (Nonesuch) unfolds with gritty grace and swaggers with confident, muscular ease. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach spends much of the album wailing about or serenading one woman or another; the love of his life, the messed-up ex in need of love, the women who rejected him or left him or never even noticed he was there, the wild woman he's compelled to fall for or afraid to fall for or the one he's obsessing and howling over ...
Auerbach keeps the subject matter from becoming tedious by trading between a soulful, gently caressing falsetto and his usual sexy hoarse timbre while drummer Patrick Carney holds the heavy-driving rhythms steady, sometimes slowing things down to a seething, slinky crawl or speeding up to a hip-swaying roll. The musicians have continued to incorporate neo-psychedelic textures — swirling organ, wah-wah riffage, '60s-style big beat percussion — as well as instrumental embellishments, like the playful whistling in "Tighten Up," the sole track co-produced by Danger Mouse, or the Baroque harpsichord melodies of "Too Afraid to Love You."
The heavy-hitters come one after another in an unrelenting deluge, so it's hard to pinpoint the stand-out, although "The Go Getter" finds Carney in a controlled tumble, fat and fuzzed-out riffs contrasting with warped, surf rock-flavored guitar strums against Carney's airy roiling beat.
If the Black Keys' 2008 Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release was a taste of brilliance, its 2010 follow-up is rock 'n' roll perfection, and tangible proof that the Ohio blues rock duo is capable of evolving without laying a finger on what makes them so goddamn fabulous in the first place. —Leilani Polk
The Gaslight Anthem
The Gaslight Anthem's third proper full-length (and second for high-quality California label Sideonedummy) finds the refreshingly un-hip act moving further away from the punky edge that originally endeared it to the fast-rawk set, and closer to fully embracing the R&B and singer-songwriter influences it referenced so successfully on 2008's breakthrough, The '59 Sound. And while that may be bad news for fans of full-bore guitar distortion and speedy angst, it's great news for listeners who know that real rock 'n' roll is all about soul.
More eclectic and overall a bit less loud and punchy than its predecessor, American Slang nonetheless pulls off its mellower edge without sacrificing any impact at all, largely thanks to the emotionally compelling execution that is fast becoming the band's trademark. Singer Brian Fallon's heartfelt, Springsteen-esque delivery conveys an almost physical urgency as he spins tales of love, livin' while you can and getting it over on this dull little town, and the rhythm section remains tight and propulsive on songs like the title track, "Stay Lucky," "Orphans" and "The Spirit of Jazz."
It's on pleasant surprises like the jaunty "The Diamond Church Street Choir" and sultry "The Queen of Lower Chelsea," however, that the ghosts of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding haunt the group's American Songbook vibe to astonishing effect. Even something so potentially out of place as the surprisingly U2-esque closer "We Did It When We Were Young" comes off as majestic and, more importantly, honest.
As another layer of bombast is peeled away, American Slang further reveals The Gaslight Anthem as more-than-capable composers of timelessly resonant tunes, and perhaps one of those bands rock lovers will still be listening to a decade or more from now. 1/2 —Scott Harrell
History from Below
Delta Spirit's collective energy, multi-instrument switcheroos and heartfelt sentiment are entrancing in a live setting. The soulful rock band has managed to capture that energy and emotion in their second album, History From Below.
In the three years since their self-released debut, the incredible this-is-all-you-will-listen-to-for-three-weeks Ode to Sunshine, Delta Spirit has moved into a real studio and given us 11 of the most captivating songs you will ever hear. While the band sounds more polished, they haven't lost the essence of what makes them so good.
Delta Spirit is comprised of old souls who know just what to say in their major-key anthems to comfort the human race, or simply to help a person through the inevitability of heartbreak. "Ransom Man," "St. Francis" and "Ballad of Vitaly" quietly trudge through bravery, uncertainty, self-realization and unfair loss, but are so beautifully hopeful that I want to reach in and give singer Matt Vasquez a hug. He shouts and murmurs the lyrics like any man in crisis — rousing and intimate, he gets angry and frustrated and torn down by life, but pulls in the listener like a friend. The album opener, "911," bounces around a relevant tale of economic caution, while "Bushwick Blues" plows out of the speakers with pulsating rhythms and a message of vulnerability. "Salt in the Wound" is one of those mind-reelingly personal songs that arouses intense emotion and knee-jerk replays. Listen to this one with headphones in a quiet space.
History From Below shines a light on the human condition, but offers melancholy hope, as if to say, "Yep, life blows and storms are ahead, but at least we have life jackets." (Rounder) —Taylor Toothman