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Not many notable blues-rock projects were released in the past few years that The Black Keys didn’t have their hands on. Guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach shrugged his role as front man and went behind the scenes to produce some enormous releases, such as Ray LaMontagne’s Supernova and the Black Lips’ Underneath the Rainbow. Auerbach leaves a big fingerprint on the records he produces, infusing them with the same southern blues sound that caught international attention and catapulted The Black Keys to fame. Yet somewhere between acting as producer or collaborator on an impressive variety of musical projects, Dan Auerbach found the time to gang back up with drummer Patrick Carney and head into the studio to create another Black Keys’ album. The Black Keys latest release, Turn Blue, is an intelligent next step for the band – while it features more of the soulful blues-rock that became the band’s signature, there is also a new experimentation with darker, more polished sounds.
Though Auerbach proved himself a capable producer over the past few years, the band made a smart decision to bring in a fresh perspective. That is where renowned producer Brian Joseph Burton, known to most as “Danger Mouse,” came into play. The Black Keys could have easily repeated in musical verbatim their 2011 breakout album El Camino, but instead the edgy producer led them down a less predictable path. Turn Blue is littered with Danger Mouse’s glossy aesthetic, casting a cleaner, heavier tone. The ambient opening track “Weight of Love” demonstrates this shift well – while high intensity guitar solos are standard for the band, on this track they are filtered through echoing distortion. In the background, a ghostly glockenspiel just as drenched in effects plunks away, adding an eerie touch to it. With the expert guidance of their producer, The Black Keys have twisted their sound into something deeper, darker, and new.
The band tinkers with new instrumentation on nearly every track, incorporating keyboard and synthesizers for the very first time. This is a bold step for a band that cut their teeth playing with just a cheap guitar and drum kit, but it more than proves to be the right step in the right direction. On the title track, “Turn Blue,” a spacey synth sound whirrs in the background, bringing out some of the dreamy atmosphere that characterizes the record. The integrity of Auerbach’s soul-filled voice is preserved, still crooning in the distinctive, scratchy tone that gives The Black Keys’ music its personality and flair. But the new instrumental elements put his vocals in a new context, and with the slower, simmering, synth-driven sound, they come across as more calculated. The vocals have all the same warmth and spirit, but with the contrast of the textured, more sinister backdrop of sounds, they are given a new emotional power.
The centerpiece of this album is the upbeat single “Fever,” a full-force, fully outfitted song that is another wildly successful result of The Black Keys’ musical experimentation. The song thrives on playing with rhythm in a quirky and clever ways. Every instrument in the song takes on an individually rhythmic role, each unit turning on and off until the song is a well-organized chaos. The synth rhythm punctuates every few moments, providing a memorable beat that gives the song shape and an unmistakable tag. The distorted fuzz of the guitar parts chop in and out. A thudding, steady bass line, another uncommon instrument for the band, anchors the song down. Through the perfect frenzy Auerbach’s vocals emerge, filled with a wild urgency that displays the singer’s escalating talents. This style of rhythms and vocals appear on other standout tracks on the album, namely “10 Lovers” and “It’s Up to You Now.” Anyone looking for the messy charm that The Black Keys seem to effortlessly create will find it here on these songs – just arranged with more deliberate thought than before.
It is a long adventure for a band looking to find and develop a sound, one that probably never ends. The Black Keys spent a decade looking for that sound with just a single guitar and a drum set, perfecting a rustic form of the blues in the process. Looking to take those blues to the next level, the band needed to break free from the confines of their simple drums and guitar set up. It was a brave and daring move to not only expand their instrumentation, but to also tackle new themes and tones. As a result, the songs on this release are introspective and scenic, put together with care and thought. This album opens up a whole world for The Black Keys, one that everyone can look forward to the band exploring on future albums.