The Black Keys
9 May 2014 (Nonesuch Records)
By Josh Hughes
Rewind six years and the only thing that comes to mind about The Black Keys is their grungy White Stripes-influenced guitar and drums blues, and maybe that they’re new album was produced by the all knowing Danger Mouse. Then go a short two years forward and they’ve commercially blown up with songs like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” off an album that iTunes, of all places, helmed as their album of the year. Another two years ahead and that success gets doubled with El Camino, their most deceptively brilliant album to date. Where Brothers shone in the side of bluesy slow jams, El Camino’s angular hooks made it impenetrable and undeniably catchy. All in all, Akron, Ohio’s Black Keys grew to be one of the biggest bands in the world in the matter of two damn good albums in less than two years. Which leaves the always asked question in popular music- where to go next? Album number eight, Turn Blue, solves that dilemma with spaced out film noir blues and their most musically daring batch of songs to date.
Opener, “The Weight of Love” is arguably the band’s strongest statement to date, filled with scorching minute long guitar solos backed with a Pink Floyd-y groove complete with acoustic guitar and vibraphone. It’s un-mistakingly a Danger Mouse record from the first fifteen seconds onward with its Spaghetti Western toned production and sci-fi synths in the background. Dan Auerbach said in an interview that Danger Mouse essentially becomes part of the band when producing for them- and it’s pretty evident throughout. It’s more Broken Bells than Black Keys on certain moments, but it never takes the helm to veer on knockoff.
The first string of songs on the album, like most Black Keys records, are the strongest, gutsiest singles, and are all equal contenders for another smash hit. “In Time”, which brings to mind film noir, adds in horns to the mix, and gets dastardly satisfying as it runs its four minute course. The title track and “Fever” serve as a pair of lead singles showcasing the two sides of the band as they’ve grown over the years, both of which are prime examples of each side.
On top of the simple satisfaction of great songwriting, nearly every song deceives the listener by starting with a different groove than the rest of the song. The piano on “In Our Prime”, the drum assault of “Year In Review”, the acoustic beginning to “Bullet In The Brain”; every track changes pace and opens up more complex soundscapes than any Black Keys album to date.
While they’ve grown so far from their origin to add an array of instruments, the aesthetic of two guys jamming their hearts out to gritty rock is still in tact- likely because Danger Mouse knows the exact tricks to still make that sound even when the most “Black Keys” Black Keys song here is centered on a keyboard hook.
Apart from the usual Brian Burton touches of string samples and unusual keyboards is prominent bass on nearly every song. It’s the biggest factor in the album’s accomplishment, adding a foundation to Auerbach’s gritty solos and Carney’s passionate backbeats. The funky “10 Lovers” and “Fever” are both in vein with “Tighten Up” because of the basslines, but Turn Blue as a whole is more like a full album of “Tighten Up’s” than any of their previous albums.
Nonetheless, more than anything, Turn Blue succeeds on the basic idea of strong songwriting. Auerbach has always had an ear for clever songs, but for the first time they seem as fully fleshed out as he really wants them to be. The closer “Gotta Get Away” is a tongue in cheek reminder that the duo still knows how to write fun, simple hooks and songs. Just as Yeezus and Trouble Will Find Me were last year, Turn Blue is proving to be my summer anthem for the year.
Fav Tracks: “The Weight of Love”, “In Time”, “Fever”, “In Our Prime”, “Gotta Get Away”
Rating: Loved It