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The Black Keys achieve new goals on 'Turn Blue'

Nonesuch

By Nick Boyd, Daily Arts Writer
Published May 14, 2014

The Black Keys, Ohio rock ‘n’ roll duo Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, may have achieved too great a degree of mainstream popularity to still be considered hip. For those more concerned with the longevity of quality music rather than their own hipness, this should be cause for celebration. With the release of El Camino in December of 2011, the Black Keys marked their transition from a blues jam band with a cult following to a more diversified sound and widespread fame. At the time, critics were quick to heap praise on the Black Keys, in a we’ve-been-fans-the-whole-time sort of way. However, what’s the only thing cooler in the world of music criticism than lifting a band out of relative obscurity? Tearing an established band down for regressing to “normalcy!” The Black Keys released their newest album, Turn Blue, on May 12, 2014. The immediate critical reaction was less than positive – the general consensus was that the Black Keys had somehow abandoned their original sound in favor of something less honest.

I listened to the new album, and guess what? The Black Keys have lost their original sound – and good thing that they have! Any band that maintains the same artistic goals for twelve years and eight albums is a really boring band. The Black Keys are not boring. Artistic experimentation is a form of growth rather than dishonesty. The innovative decisions that went into the album’s production render Turn Blue unique within the context of the Black Keys’ greater work. As such, there are a few growing pains, but the successes far outnumber the rough patches. With their latest album, the Black Keys may have discontinued their traditional sound, but they have definitely sustained their reputation for producing good music.

Where an older Black Keys album, such as Thickfreakness, tended to open with the auditory equivalent of a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cigarette, Turn Blue opens with an LSD-infused Woodstock-vision quest in the form of “Weight of Love.” Dan Auerbach adopts an eerie guitar tone that persists throughout the album, and bass is given a new level of prominence previously untested by the Black Keys. Ghostly bells and synth tones debut on this track, which can probably be attributed to the band increasing collaboration with producer Danger Mouse (No, that’s not Anthony Weiner’s new alias). Danger Mouse also works closely with other acts such as Portugal. The Man, Beck, and Broken Bells – all of which are trippy in their own right. It’s no surprise Danger Mouse’s signature touch is now surfacing in the Black Keys’ work.

The sixth track off the album, “Bullet in the Brain,” reinforces the dreamy trajectory of the album. The verses transport you to the Atlanta Pop Festival circa 1970 while the choruses are reminiscent of a hard-driving Tame Impala. Synthesizer, bells (looking at you, Danger Mouse), bass, and Auerbach’s riffs harmonize seamlessly.

“Turn Blue,” the track for which the album is named, is a blues song – but in a different style than the Black Keys usually produce. A muddied bass line and rasping chord changes create a more dissociated, ethereal tone than a traditional blues jam. “In Our Prime” marks a further deviation from the Black Keys norm with a piano intro and keyboard solo. The variety of instrumentation is one of the best parts of the album and much credit has to be given to the refreshing touch Danger Mouse has lent the duo.

The Black Keys are not the same band that released “The Big Come Up,” in 2003. If they were, it would be an artistic failure. A band needs to evolve not only to maintain the interest of its audience, but also to keep things interesting for themselves. Turn Blue marked an artistic challenge for Auerbach and Carney, and with the help of Danger Mouse, they pulled it off to great effect.