Monday, May 12, 2014

Chilled to perfection: The Black Keys - Turn Blue

The last time I was in the company of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney it was New Year's Eve 2012 in Las Vegas.

That, really, should be the start of a proper rock'n'roll anecdote, so it almost pains me to add that I was amongst 4000-odd other revelers seeing in the New Year at the Keys' show at the Hard Rock Hotel's ironically named venue, The Joint. And to tell you the truth, my hearing has only just recovered now.

Which is why it is a welcome relief that Turn Blue, their eighth album, should open with the gentle wooziness of the nearly-seven minute-long Weight Of My Love. I'm not the first, and I certainly won't be the last to note its similarity to Pink Floyd's Breathe, with its spacey guitar jangle and general sense of resignation, opening out into the sort of instantly accessible soulful track that Auerbach has successfully helped create in the last year or so for Dr. John and the Alabama Shakes.

It feels familiar, vintage even - in the sense of early '70s West Coast guitar rock - but at the same time presents enough to remind you you're listening to a band still in its ascendancy, and still considered ascendantly hip enough to be courted by Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones.

That trajectory is underscored by the confidence of In Time, which takes a hint of Sly & The Family Stone groove, a pinch of funk guitar (you half expect it to turn out to be Nile Rodgers) and, rather than take the cheap coin and turn in a pure retro nod, makes a bold stab at creating something distinct.

The title track, Turn Blue IS, though, unashamedly retro, an infectious slither of late night soul that trades off Auerbach’s noodling on the Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls (still one of the best debut albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to). Hooked around a pure-Memphis guitar riff, with a vocal by Auerbach closer to the late Frank Reed of The Chi-Lites, than a garage-blues band from Akron, Ohio, the album’s title track makes a suggestive start with an opening line of "In the dead of the night I start to lose control" before adding a suggestion of either guilt or resentment with "but I still carry the weight like I’ve always done before”.

Fever is not, you’ll be relieved to know, a corny cover of the Peggy Lee classic (which has never been bettered, in my view, than Rita Moreno and Animal from the Muppets, plus his wing-like eyebrows), but the deserved radio hit of recent weeks, and one even worthy of consideration as this year’s Get Lucky. It thumps and stomps, cutting its own rug beneath an infectious synth riff and a postman-baiting chorus.

By now you will have gained the distinct impression that Auerbach and Carney are in a psychedelic frame of mind - the least of which being the retina-singeing swirl of the album’s cover - and Fever takes the riff-and-groove of the Keys' previous albums turns into a something  utterly hypnotic. Which, surely, is what a hit record should be about.

Initially Bullet In The Brain takes us back to Floyd territory, albeit with a significantly louder drum sound than Nick Mason ever concocted, but quickly kicks into one of those bassy rockers that you just want to hear played live. Indeed, if I was to be picky, it sounds somewhat anaemic as an album track. Not that its bad - it’s just that its crying out to be the next cause of temporary deafness for punters at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Those with a keen ear for outbreaks of huffiness in the music industry may, over recent years, detected a degree of frost between The Black Keys and their monochromatic opposites, The White Stripes. Perhaps umbrage was taken by the fact that the two acts' basic proposition - garage-blues, singer/guitarist-and-drummer duo - was rather too similar for comfort. It’s Up To You, with its tribal drumming, buzzsaw guitar and brain-burying hook line is most definitely not a counter to Jack White. But it sure as feels like it.

After all that angst, Waiting On Words casts a calming veil over things, adding a summer breeze of an Isley Brothers feel, setting up for the next track, 10 Lovers, arguably the most ‘pop’ in The Black Keys’ 13-year history. Actually, it’s probably the most ‘pop’ I’ve allowed myself to listen to in as many years.

Or so I thought. By the time In Our Prime gets into its stride, you realise that this whole album has been wearing a cheesecloth shirt and sporting outrageous bell-bottom denims all the time. Like a lost Wings track it, and the wholehearted boogie of Gotta Get Away (which took me back to Thursday night editions of Top Of The Pops hosted by Noel Edmonds and featuring curtain-haired youths with their thumbs thrust into belt loops, givin’ it some) which follows provide all the proof you need to realise that Turn Blue is a carefree, carpet-rolled back celebration of the decade that wavered between naff and compelling.

More to the point, the latter of these two has the sort of chorus that will have you jiving away all summer long when the Keys hit the road.

Just as their peers Kings Of Leon did with their Mechanical Bull album, the accessibility and knowing commerciality of Turn Blue may alienate Black Keys fans who prefer their more traditional interpretation of the blues. But to do so denies the right of pop music to exist. On this evidence, I'd rather have this being forced on my ears on Top 40 radio than almost anything else that medium deems appropriate these days for human consumption. And if I ever write anything more middle aged than that again, I may have to be taken out and shot.

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