The Black Keys – Turn Blue

Turn Blue (2014)

B-

1. Weight Of Love 2. In Time 3. Turn Blue 4. Fever 5. Year In Review 6. Bullet In The Brain 7. It’s Up To You Now 8. Waiting On Words 9. 10 Lovers 10. In Our Prime 11. Gotta Get Away

 

So, Jack White and the Black Keys are beefing, apparently. Well, sort of. It’s a one sided beef consisting of Jack mouthing off in the press about how the Black Keys make a living ripping him off—in the process denigrating Keys fans as mindless lemmings who are “totally fine with the watered-down version of the original”—and the Black Keys being like, “Um…. wut?” And here I thought only sycophantic teenage White Stripes fans were dumb enough to perpetuate the myth that the Keys are just cheap Stripes knockoffs. First of all, if Jack White has played a totally original note in his life, then Jimmy Page totally wrote “The Lemon Song” and Howlin’ Wolf is a mythical walrus invented by Aesop. Secondly, Chulahoma is a way more authentic blues record than anything Jack has ever done. And thirdly, nothing the Black Keys have done since at least Attack & Release has sounded anything fucking like Jack White at all. So shut up, Jack White. Though I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything less than stupid shit from him at this point. After all, this is the guy who thought it was a good idea to start a band with Alison Mosshart and who says things like “I want to be part of the resurgence of things that are tangible, beautiful and soulful, rather than just give in to the digital age” out loud.

Then again, maybe the Keys should try imitating Jack because this album might be their weakest yet. I’m actually listening to Jack’s latest solo effort as I write this review (oh shit! Do you think Jack would get mad at me if he knew? Whatever, I don’t care. He already bitched me out in public cyberspace for daring to say the Dead Weather are shit. True story. It was on Pitchfork), and it’s not exactly his best work, but at least it sounds like him. Turn Blue sounds like… well, actually it sounds like three different records all mashed together. Two of those records are good, one of them sucks, and the cumulative effect is “I’m confused.”

Dan had gone through a divorce prior to recording this album, so I guess it’s understandable that it sounds a little messy and unfocused. But matters certainly would have been improved if he’d just chosen one direction to go in instead of several. Indeed, hidden in the grooves of Turn Blue is a chilled out, low key soul album, a 70s stoner rock jam album, and a Danger Mouse electro fuckery album. It’s also possible that there’s a G.G. Allin album in there somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s under the label? I dunno, I don’t have the vinyl.

The most interesting of the three divergent musical strains on Turn Blue is the “70s stoner rock jam” thing, which may sound dated and played and all, but it really works when you’ve got Dan Auerbach doing it for you. He’s a great guitar player! And he’s never had a true showcase like “Weight Of Love,” which, after a faintly corny Old West ambiance intro, he extends to nearly seven minutes with waves of emotive, stone cold classic rock soloing. That’s some real juicy shit right there, and beats the hell out of all that stale “look at how great a guitar player I am!” riffage on Magic Potion. Unfortunately, that slow burning, flashy fretwork only surfaces for a few fleeting moments during the rest of the album—the moaning “Bullet In The Brain,” the unexpected instrumental middle section of “It’s Up To You Now,” which arrives just in time, just as that incessant fake tribal electro-drumbeat starts to give me a headache—but man, it’s woefully underused. Dan has never been much of lyricist, relying mostly on clichés about women who done him wrong and stuff. So unable to relate his emotional strife verbally, he instead expressed it through his guitar playing. Unfortunately, outside of “Weight Of Love,” he doesn’t give himself enough room to really work it. Too bad.

Another possible direction I sense poking its way through here is a more chilled out, late night version of Brothers’ soul and funk trappings. They absolutely nail that sort of thing with the title track, with its snazzy, laid back guitar licks and slick as fuck chorus transporting me to a shitty nightclub at 4 AM, where Dan is sitting alone and lonely after everyone else as gone home. “Waiting On Words,” which alternates laid back, lovelorn verses with a more pop-inflected chorus, is great as well, thanks in large part to that damn Auerbach falsetto, which, well… let’s just say if I had a vagina, it would make me very wet. But it also works so well because the arrangement is so scaled back compared to almost everything else on here – the first half is just Auerbach singing over a couple of strummed guitars. I get the feeling that the vibe the band captured on these two songs is what they were going for on the rest of the album, but without similarly sympathetic arrangements, all those other songs just make the band seem tired and bored. If you’re gonna do a subdued mood record, you have to, you know, make an effort to actually capture a mood instead of just pile a bunch of shit on top of the songs and see what happens.

Indeed, the main reason most of Turn Blue just doesn’t do much for me is because Danger Mouse is now apparently in the Black Keys, seeing as he’s the producer and a prominent studio musician for the fourth straight time, and the co-writer of all eleven of these songs (same deal on El Camino). I got nothing against Danger Mouse, he’s done some cool stuff, but on this record, far more so than the three previous Keys albums he worked on, he’s just given way too much free rein to construct this album in his own image rather than, you know, the Black Keys’ image.

Give the man credit for one thing, though – he knows how to construct a surefire radio single, and here that’s the dancey electro-pop “Fever,” which seems to be burning up the airwaves just like “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” before it without sounding much like either one. With its sorta goofy but catchy farfisa organ motif and Dan’s suave delivery, I can dig it OK, even if it does come off as kind of overproduced. But most of the other songs on the record, lacking the strong hooks of “Fever” (which I suppose can be blamed on Dan and Pat as much as it can on Danger Mouse), fail to transcend their needlessly dense arrangements and preponderance of studio effects, to the point that I can barely remember how half the record goes beyond being a big ol’ pile of overbusy electro-crap. I mean, there’s tons of annoying synths everywhere, the guitars are processed to hell, and worst of all, almost all the drum parts are heavily gated and slathered with reverb to the point that they might as well have just used a drum machine instead of having Pat show up to the studio. I used to enjoy Pat’s drumming! Now I can barely tell if he’s even there. I hate fans who bitch and moan about the Keys selling out and wanting them to just make Thickfreakness over and over again as much as anybody. But there’s something called “expanding your songwriting and instrumental palate” and there’s something else entirely called “allowing your entire personality and distinctiveness as a band to be completely swallowed up by Danger Mouse.” Too often, Turn Blue winds up on the wrong side of that line. Numerous internet commenters have likened the sound of this record to one of Danger Mouse’s seemingly innumerable side projects, Broken Bells, but seeing as I’ve never heard a single Broken Bells song, at least to my knowledge, the only thing I can do is assume this assessment is 100% accurate, which is what I do with every internet comment I come across. By the way, do you know about chemtrails? Those mind-controlling government bastards.

Oh yeah, the last track on here is a 3-minute classic rock summer jam with a chugging 70s riff and a mindlessly catchy, hairy chested chorus that, if it referenced beer and chicks instead of lamenting the fact that “all the good women are gone,” would be fit for a Coors Light commercial. It’s so much more energetic than and stylistically divergent from the rest of the album that it barely makes any sense at all for it to be on the record. Other than the fact that it rocks – and after the previous 40 minutes, we all needed a reminder that the Black Keys can still rock.



3 Comments

  1. Catherine wrote:

    Hi- we met once at a Dewey party a long time ago. you told me about your website and I lurk around here occasionally. I don’t really like this album that much either- the first time I heard Fever I was completely floored. What had they done?! I think there’s a line in it that literally goes “break it down again.” But after the first 15-20 times I heard it it started to grow on me. I like the video too I guess. This album was hard to get through too because I was going through a terrible breakup right around the time it came out, and the album is all about dan auerbachs divorce.

    I was at Bonnaroo last weekend and saw Jack White for the first time. He totally killed it. I saw dbt too and they were great!! Oh and Lucero!!

    What have you been doing since you graduated? I see you’re still writing.

    • Jeremy wrote:

      Was I really drunk? I can’t recall ever bothering to venture all the way over to Dewey without being really drunk.

      • Cat wrote:

        I was totally obliterated that night so I had a hard time gauging how drunk everyone else was. It was great! Except the next day I had to get up and drive to Boston to see my mom. I was still drunk.


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