Wednesday, May 14, 2014

album review: 'turn blue' by the black keys

If you're a male music fan, there is one statement I can make definitively: over some period of time, either in the past, present, or now, you will be a fan of the Black Keys.

For me, that period of fandom lasted about three weeks in the middle of August 2013. That's not saying I don't like the Black Keys or think they aren't a solid rock band drawing back to the grimy, lo-fi era of garage rock, but my fandom of this act has receded a fair bit over the months the more I've had a chance to reflect on their music. After all, the band's greatest strengths have been their knack for textured, rough-edged melody-driven hooks with a swaggering blues-inspired edge. But here's the thing: the band has long been aware of this advantage, and over the course of seven albums from 2002 to 2011, they milked that advantage as long as they could. Now that's not saying they didn't get some killer songs along the way, but the Black Keys had a formula, and outside of a few stylistic ventures - mostly thanks to Danger Mouse collaborations - they tended to stick to it. And while that formula made for great singles, it didn't exactly make for great album statements. That, combined with the fact the duo has written some pretty obnoxious lyrics - especially when talking about women - did mean that I cooled on the weaker parts of the Black Keys' discography in record time.

And thus when I heard they were planning to switch up their formula with their newest album Turn Blue, I was both intrigued and concerned. I'm all for bands like The Black Keys to experiment, but the opening singles gave me a lot of pause, because not only was the distortion gone, but the synth tone being used seemed really unflattering. A few enterprising critics made a Foster The People comparison, and while I'd disagree somewhat with that assessment, it certainly was a sound far removed from typical Black Keys and not exactly for the better. And thus, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the new album: did I get proven wrong?

Well, not really, no. Let me stress that this Black Keys record is by no means bad - hell, I was expecting this to be worse than it is. But it's not great, and I'm not even sure it's good, but what's worse is that I can tell what the Black Keys were trying to do with this record - and by all accounts, I'd argue they succeeded. But at the same time, it doesn't make this album something I enjoy, or will want to revisit time and time again like other Black Keys records. In other words, it's an interesting album, but not exactly one I can recommend.

Let's start with the biggest departure from the norm, and that's the instrumentation and production - and to be fair, it's not that huge of a leap. The guitar work is still solid, I dig the hollowness of the drums, the production has a feel of aged grit that adds plenty of texture to the songs, and even the bass work isn't half bad. And given this album flirts with psychedelia, some isolated moments were definitely worth it, like the synchronized guitars on 'Weight of Love', the dreary yet impossibly catchy guitar melody of the title track, the fuzz-saturated tone of 'It's Up To You Now', and even the keyboard solo on 'In Our Prime'. It's unfortunate, though, that that might be the only keyboard segment I found remotely tolerable on this album, all of which were thanks to producer and sometimes songwriter for the Black Keys Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse. And just like on his last album with Broken Bells, Burton's keyboard tonal choices range between just agreeable - if painfully flat and inert if it's a piano - to squealing, atonal, and grating beyond measure. I already mentioned 'Fever', which was an otherwise solid enough track if it wasn't for the keyboard progression completely neutering the mood with an influx of minor keys. And it's not just that the keyboard tones sound like they were imported from a bad office training video from the mid-80s, but the choice of dreary, sour melodies only accentuate those negative sounds, and not in a way that makes the tracks gain any sort of visceral emotion or presence. What's worse is that with most of the lo-fi distortion pulled back and most of the melodies concentrated in the keyboards, the flash and attitude that used to characterize Black Keys records seems drained away, and the melodies look sound a lot less impressive. But even outside of that, the majority of the album feels bereft of energy, and a song like 'In Time' seems to bring some back to the table, it feels suspiciously reminiscent of 'How Do You Like Me Now' by The Heavy or just a return to the Black Keys' usual wheelhouse on 'Gotta Get Away'.

Granted, the vocals don't exactly help matters here. Dan Auerbach has a fine enough voice and I like the rougher vocal production, but he frequently sounds disaffected and bored behind the microphone, and that's not when he descends into a falsetto that sounds less and less flattering every time. The backing female vocals don't help either, for while they might fit the gutless sourness of this record in a sleazy informercial sort of way, it doesn't exactly make them pleasant or welcome. Granted, they are preferable to Auerbach's falsetto, but if they were looking to evoke element of grandeur that you typically see in psychedelic rock, they failed utterly, because this album feels small, slimy, and generally unpleasant.

So if I have so many negative comments on the sound, why aren't I castigating this album? Well honestly, I think it comes down to the point and sound that Auerbach was trying to make, which takes us to lyrics and themes - which in a first for the Black Keys, is probably the element that saves this album for me. It's well-documented that he was going through a divorce during the writing of the lyrics of this album, and you can definitely tell there's residual bitterness as he writes the rough narrative of this record. It's a relationship that begins out of indecision and bad choices, where everything from the girl's aimless attitudes towards romance to the narrator's own doubts point towards this going hopelessly wrong. And surprise surprise, it all goes wrong, and the second half of the album is watching the relationship fall apart in slow motion, as the girl eventually musters her courage and leaves the narrator. And he's heartbroken, but you get the feeling throughout this record that he seemed less angry and more just resigned to the inevitable.

And if I'm being incredibly honest with myself, it fits the tone of this record. It's sour and bitter and miserable, but it's telling that kind of story, where the characters knowingly make bad decisions and it blows up in their face. It helps matters that the framing is mostly indifferent to both parties and only really leaps on the 'evil woman' train for the final track ' Gotta Get Away', which is a song so upbeat and reminiscent of previous Black Keys albums that while it operates as a step into the light, it's also one that makes Auerbach look like a massive, lying asshole. But outside of that bit of tonal dissonance, the music's choice to go for a chintzy, 'commercial' in terms of being used in faded advertisements', grimy direction fits that kind of small-minded, petty, miserable story. Like it or not, it somehow fits together.

And you know, there's a place for this sort of music - these sorts of stories are relatable and it's framed well-enough to be realistic and human. But at the same time, it's not exactly a story I find pleasant or all that compelling, especially with the copout in the framing of the final track. And yet, I can't say it fails either, because you can tell this is an album that is trying to be as reflective and unpleasant as the story it's telling, which for me, combined with the sheer awesomeness that is 'Weight Of Love' and the solid potency of the title track, elevates this album to a 6/10. But as an record, if Turn Blue is a deeper reflection of its songwriters, then I'm glad they've mostly been fit to stick with upbeat, remorselessly shallow crunch in their rock. Those records burned - this one just gutters out.

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