Monday, June 30, 2014

The Black Keys' Turn Blue on LP (and CD)

Ah, this is the way I like to do album reviews. Play it for weeks. Get to know it well. Put the LP on your turntable and then don't take it off for a month. Stick the CD in your car's player and play it until people tell you if they have to listen to it one more time they're going to eject it and throw it out the window. Yeah, I know the Black Keys' new album, Turn Blue, pretty well by now. I've gotten to the point where I know which song is going to come up next. I even know what musical note is coming up next. It's like the summer of 2010, where I listened to nothing but Brothers and Janelle Monae's The Archandroid over and over and over again.

Is the picture clear yet?

Well, let's stop for a moment. Turn Blue isn't my favorite LP of all time. It's not even my favorite Black Keys album. I think they reached their creative peak with Brothers, and perhaps 2008's Attack and Release. Their monster breakthrough 2011 album, El Camino, might have been my favorite album for that year but in retrospect I'm starting to think that's when they lost their edge, sold out, became slick and overproduced and polished, or whatever. Turn Blue is a continuation of that trend, an album that no longer sounds all stripped down, an album from a band with two members playing everything. It sounds like a recording from an established band who now possesses the power to make any album they want to, and this one happens to be dense, ornate psychedelic rock with a little Motown thrown in. If you're saying to yourself, yeah, that sounds like the other albums, you'll need to push the time machine needle forward a few years, where Pink Floyd and the Delfonics intersect--if they intersect at all.

My opinions of this album have evolved with each listen. My first reaction was that it's a great new direction for Dan Auerback and Patrick Carney, a rich and complex soundscape that has far more layers of sound than you expect with a Black Keys album. The opener, "Weight of Love," is the closest thing the Keys have ever come to an epic song--at almost seven minutes it is by far the longest song the duo has ever recorded. It's also an amazing Track One, a calling card of sorts that reeks of ambition and weight and complete mastery of the recording studio. That's partially due to the extraordinary talents of Danger Mouse, who acts as producer and as an "equal songwriting partner" to Auerbach and Carney. He also produced El Camino, which was noteworthy to Keys' fans because of its lush production values--at least in comparison to Brothers, which was an exercise in lo-fi.

(I once visited the Avalon Acoustics factory in Boulder, Colorado and listened to an amazing system in their million dollar room. When asked if I wanted to play something, the only music I had on me was Brothers. Avalon's Neil Patel came in, sat down, and asked me if I broke his system.)

Those opinions, as I said, shifted through the evaluation process. I started thinking that the first two songs, the aforementioned "Weight of Love" and "In Time" were by far the strongest cuts, and that the album sort of blended together and the songs are started to sound the same as the album progressed. It's not as much of a criticism as you think; it reminds me of a review I once read of the Strokes' first album that said, and I paraphrase, "it's the same song over and over, but man, what a great song!" But that specific opinion of Turn Blue, as I said, changed over time. It's not so much that I started fleshing out each song and noticing all the little flourishes and touches that make the music so good and so varied. It's just that the Black Keys, more than any other contemporary band I like, get into your head and stay there and become as natural as taking your next breath.

I've played this album for a number of people and the common reaction has been, "What is this?" "The new Black Keys," I tell them. "It's great!" they reply. It's an immediately likeable album, in a big way, one made by people who know who they are and what their fans expect. But I would like them to get back to basics on the next one.

(One final note: the LP is $25, but it does come with the CD. Score! I compared the sound quality of the two and it sounded like they were sourced from the same digital masters. But as one of my Facebook friends recently posted, does it matter if an LP is sourced from a digital master when the digital master sounds so good? I think he may have a point, so I'm not going to sweat this anymore.)

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