Music Review: The Black Keys, “Turn Blue”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, The Black Keys, have been everywhere in mainstream media since 2009’s “Attack and Release,” including countless late-night TV performances, festival headliners, various feuds (cough, cough Twitter) and even TV show cameos.

However, some fans were feeling empty after the band’s last effort, “El Camino.” The Black Keys’ formula of dishing out three-to-four-minute blues blasters was wearing thin, and I wasn’t sure if the band was capable of doing more with its sound that helped usher in the blues-rock revival of the new millennium.

Then after three years, the band surprises with its eighth attempt, “Turn Blue.”

Once again teaming with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, The Black Keys expands with a late ’60s staple that fused with blues back then, psychedelic rock.

The opening track, “Weight of Love” is a nearly seven-minute psychedelic freight train that both mesmerizes and gets your head bobbing. Along with the standard heavy duty guitar/drums combo Auerbach and Carney have become known for, the song also incorporates spooky, atmospheric keyboards, organ and xylophone to induce the ’60s psychedelic feeling. Listen to this song with the Joshua Light Show and you’ll see what I mean. Essentially, the band combines its earlier work, even its extended instrumental passages, with psychedelic rock to make one heck of an opening track.

The third song, “Turn Blue,” is a groovy, soulful, Marvin Gaye-inspired toe tapper. The simple yet graceful bass and drum rhythms make the song danceable and gives room for Auerbach’s falsetto vocals, funk guitars and air synth sound effects. Auerbach sings of love lost here (no doubt influenced by his divorce with Stephanie Gonis); “When the music is done and all the lights are low/I will remember the times when love would really glow/I could dream a heavy ‘fore my world turned blue/And the light inside would only shine for you,” sings a somber Auerbach.

“Fever,” the first song released from “Turn Blue” to the public takes a quirky step toward ’80s synthpop, yet retains the bluesy, psychedelic feel the album has. Instrumentally, it’s a fun, simple song with straight-eight rhythms and a persistent, off-the-wall synth melody. Lyrically, it’s the embodiment of classic blues, both in content and delivery, with Auerbach singing lines like “It used to be a blessing/But fever got me stressing/Realizing I am the played/But fever let me play the game.”

I could go into more songs, but the last one I’ll delve into is the softer, melody-driven “Waiting On Words.” Auerbach reveals his inner George Harrison here with his falsetto voice (something he’s used more often as the albums go by). Garnishes of piano, organ and backup vocals fill in any void left in the song, creating a tight sound. While Carney’s drums still pound away (entering around the 1:20 mark), the guitars take a softer approach toward harmony and utilize ninth chords to a great advantage, making this a great progressive love song.

Just when you think The Black Keys may be running out of steam, the duo raise the bar again for 21st century blues-rock, innovating and tweaking their sound for modern masses while at the same time keeping true to their bluesy roots taken from influences like Junior Kimbrough (check out “Chulahoma”) and Robert Johnson among others. Tempo changes and using instruments like organ and synthesizers more than just background sound make “Turn Blue” arguably The Black Keys’ best album to date. It’s an album that can be played at parties, barbecues and dare I say, nightclubs. It looks like blues acts for this century just got a harder act to follow.

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