A dozen years ago, the Black Keys were a scrappy little indie blues-rock duo from Akron trying to make a “big come up” with updated, fuzzed-out blues riffs and big backbeats.
Seven albums later, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney have grown from those humble origins into an increasingly popular indie-rock blues duo with licensing deals and co-signs from legendary rockers such as Rod Stewart and Robert Plant.
Now, Auerbach and Carney are bona fide stars rocking out in arenas around the globe, collecting Grammys and platinum plaques, surviving public beefs with other famous folk and unfortunate brushes with TMZ. The Black Keys also have managed to corral the kind of cross-generational fan base that any rock band in 2014 needs to have in order to thrive in these times when the pop charts aren’t particularly rock ’n’ roll friendly.
The band’s eighth album is Turn Blue, titled as a regional nod to Cleveland television legend Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson. It will hit digital and brick-and-more store shelves Tuesday. The album finds the Keys and studio collaborator/third member Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton — with whom they have worked since their 2008 album Attack & Release — further expanding their sound.
Many of the 11 tracks contain psyche-rock and soul flavors and recall some of the grooves found on the Blakrock hip-hop side project. Turn Blue is also the band’s least guitar-centric collection of songs with bass (played primarily by Auerbach) and keyboards and Carney’s loping, hip-hop flavored grooves as the foundation of many of the tunes rather than a big riff or some crunchy chords.
That being said, there is plenty of Auerbach’s guitar playing and soloing throughout the album.
The nearly seven-minute, psych-tinged, album opener Weight of Love features a couple of searing-and-soaring, heavily compressed, double-tracked and harmonizing solos from Auerbach in full guitar-god mode.
Across the band’s career, Carney has taken many shots from detractors, including himself, for his elemental, unfussy drumming style, but throughout Turn Blue, Carney gets to sit in the album’s mostly funky grooves. His drums have a deep bottom-heavy sound, where his appropriately simple, syncopated fills and steady rhythmic sense alongside Auerbach’s throbbing bass lines will keep listeners’ heads nodding.
With those strong rhythmic foundations, Auerbach’s catchy melodic sense shines through, buoyed by the McCrary sisters’ heavily reverbed, often wordless backing vocals. He has clearly grown confident in his falsetto singing and uses it to great effect on the slinky, soulful In Time and the ethereal Waiting on Words.
The album’s lead single, Fever, one of the first songs recorded for the album, is a peppy rocker destined for a summer rom-com advertising campaign, but compared to the more freewheeling nature of much of the album, it also sounds the most like a “new-era Black Keys” song crafted to make the charts.
Lyrically, the album is the band’s moodiest and tinged with bitterness. It’s not a happy record, but it feels cathartic, and fans who paid attention to the TMZ-driven kerfuffle around Auerbach’s contentious divorce will surely look for clues in songs such as Year in Review: “Why you wanna love the ones who hurt you, they break down and they go and desert you, oh no, it’s so hard to let ’em go.”
On the up-tempo Bullet in the Brain, Auerbach sings “looking back on where we used to be, everything was clear, still I refuse to see, heart’s begun to rust, the diamond turn to dust, and baby took her pain all out on me.”
Turn Blue is also the Black Keys’ first true headphones album, and we’re not talking crappy white earbuds plugged into your aging laptop. Turn Blue is sneakily elaborately layered and produced per Burton’s style behind the board. Instruments are often panned hard to one side, Carney’s cymbals and drum rolls come crashing from all angles, analog keyboard lines and stabbing chords float in, out, around and above the mix, and the McCrary sisters always seem to be singing from the heavens or the margins.
Year in Review is built around an old Burton-generated sample loop, historically a bit of a no-no for the band, further showing that the old rules no longer apply.
For all the sonic and arrangement expansion, Turn Blue does contain a few old-school, Keys-flavored tunes for folks clinging to their copies of Rubber Factory. It’s Up to You Now, has a tribal beat, fuzz-bass line and a classic half-time Carney groove for the bluesy solo.
The album closer Gotta Get Away is a straight-ahead classic-rock tune with chords that lean toward Creedence Clearwater Revival and a simple slide solo and a chorus melody that would make Glenn Frey smile.
The Black Keys have worked themselves to the top of the non-classic rock heap. Now that they are there, they apparently decided that there are no hard, fast rules for a Black Keys album. While this self-realization should help keep the group interested and interesting for many listeners, the backlash is surely coming.
Some “old-school” fans still hoping the band will retreat back to the garage/basement to make Rubber Factory Too may find the bass-heavy grooves throughout Turn Blue a bit too similar and the elaborate production touches distracting.
But if El Camino was the band taking a crack at a contemporary classic-rock album, incorporating sounds and styles from the past 50 years of rock and their own back catalog, Turn Blue is the band taking on a contemporary psych-rockin’ soul record.