Following the triumph of El Camino, Auerbach, Carney and Danger Mouse roll the dice, play it where it lays…
From the humblest imaginable beginnings at the turn of the century as a bare-bones guitar-and-drums duo from the decaying industrial town of Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys have improbably become one of the biggest American bands, topping the Kings Of Leon and Foo Fighters franchises in record sales, airplay and sold-out arena tours. Their ascent has been gradual but steady since those formative days when guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney were jamming on the blues in the basement of Carney’s rented house, as the DIY duo forged a viable career the old-fashioned way, crisscrossing the Midwest and then the country in their beat-up ’94 Chrysler van, selling copies of their self-made records in clubs after their sets and building a fanbase of true believers, night by night.
It’s a rock’n’roll variant on the classic rags-to-riches story, made even more compelling by virtue of the fact that these two unlikely rock stars have succeeded not despite the fact that they’ve consistently gone against the grain of what’s fashionable or what the conventional wisdom dictates, but precisely because of it. Categorically refusing to play the game, they just follow their instincts and people respond, because what they deliver is immediate, honest and unpretentious. You root for them, because they never let you down.
The Black Keys began defying expectations with the Danger Mouse-produced “Tighten Up”, from 2010’s Brothers, the band’s first big hit, which, with its happy-go-lucky bounce and whistled overhanging melody, presented a radically different sound and feel than the blues-based guitar rock guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney had built their rep on. In late 2011, the Keys went in a different direction altogether with El Camino, on which, in league with co-producer Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, they unleashed one slammin’, infectious rocker after another, scoring their first platinum album on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.
With Turn Blue, their eighth longplayer, Auerbach, Carney and Burton have made yet another sharp left turn, choosing not to try to make an El Camino sequel – which their record label undoubtedly would have been delighted to receive – but once again going for something completely different. The new album is largely midtempo, moody, lush in places and deeply soulful, with keyboards featured as much as guitars. Though musically ambitious, this abrupt shift from in-your-face, one listen rockers to something more challenging would appear to be commercially hazardous as a follow-up to the Keys’ breakthrough album; its nuanced soundscapes are certain to confuse many of the newbies who became aware of the band via “Lonely Boy”, and it’s the kind of album that reveals itself over time – hardly a winning strategy in an era when so many people have the attention span of a gnat. On the other hand, Auerbach and Carney’s instincts, their refusal to paint by numbers, have yet to let them down.
The partners’ impulse to go wider and deeper in their stylistic purview first became apparent itself on album number five, 2008’s Attack & Release, their initial go-round with Burton, which found them incorporating R’n’B elements into their electric blues, slowing down the tempos and ramping up the mood quotient. Listening to the two albums back-to-back now, Turn Blue sounds like a natural progression from the earlier LP, playing out like an ardent love letter to soul music, Motown in particular. The touches are omnipresent: the Marvin Gaye-evoking sultriness of the title track, the Smokey Robinson-infused purr of the languid “Waiting On Words”, the Four Tops-like throbbing urgency of “Year In Review”, the summery thrum of Martha & The Vandellas coursing through “Zero”, and the pocket symphony “In Time”, which plays out like an homage to Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong’s late-’60s Motown classics with the Temptations.
With its mix of downhome grit and uptown flourishes, first-generation urban soul is a rich form to conjure, requiring ornamentation beyond what the electric guitar can provide. Burton is a master of retro keyboard effects, and his presence, as dictated by Turn Blue’s stylistic thrust, is more obvious than on past collaborations with Auerbach and Carney; in a signature move, he even drops a string sample from a’60s Italian film score into “Year In Review”. But Auerbach is equally involved in this sonic broadening, making extensive use of his growing collection of esoteric keyboards on the records he produced for Ray LaMontagne, Dr. John and others in his own studio, Nashville’s Easy Eye, where El Camino was recorded. “Fever”, Turn Blue’s lead single, one of three cuts laid down during the initial sessions early last year without Burton’s involvement, features a churning Auerbach Farfisa riff that resembles Steve Nieve’s memorable turn on Costello’s “Pump It Up”, demonstrating that he’s becoming as adept at keys as he is at guitar.
Not that Auerbach has abandoned his primary instrument – far from it. Amid the aural panorama, with its buttery churns of Hammond organ and cloud formations of Mellotron strings, the meat-and-potatoes directness of other two non-Danger Mouse entries serve as primal change-ups. Auerbach’s snarling fuzztone attacks Carney’s rumbling Bo Diddley beat on “It’s Up To You Now”, while his Creedence-like rhythm guitar riffing powers the exhilarating highway cruiser “Gotta Get Away”, which closes the album because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else. But Turn Blue’s most striking moments bring these two vectors into synchrony, providing a rich context for the most elegant and ecstatic soloing Auerbach has ever laid down in the studio.
The nearly seven-minute epic “Weight Of Love”, which opens the album and stands as its crowning achievement, introduces itself with the dreamlike interplay of strummed acoustic, chiming keyboard notes and low-lying organ but the sense of serenity is shattered by a taut, swelling electric guitar line that coils and strikes cobra-like before ceding the foreground to Auerbach’s wounded, yearning vocal. As the track expands in scale, the raging electric, which occupies the right channel in Tchad Blake’s intricate mix, is joined by its twin on the left, and they twist and turn upward in orgasmic harmony until spent. If El Camino’s “Little Black Submarine was the Keys’ “Stairway To Heaven”, “Weight Of Love” stands as their “Layla”.
And if El Camino was the Keys’ catchiest album, Turn Blue turns out to be their sneakiest, subtlest and most seductive. It might be the first Black Keys record for lovers, in fact.
I hear a lot of soul flavors on Turn Blue, Motown in particular. What inspired you to go in this direction?
Those are influences that we’ve always had, and sometimes they show their face more than other times. We didn’t really think or talk about anything ahead of time; we just went in and did it and that’s what happened. We never do demos, we never plan ahead, we never talk about a direction. That’s just how we do it as a band, so anything you hear on our records is really a snapshot from that moment in time, where we were in the studio improvising. And that’s what happened with this album.
You’ve said that you hadn’t written any songs prior to going into the studio for El Camino. Was that the case with Turn Blue as well?
Yeah. For Brothers, a lot of the songs were loosely written ahead of the time, but the arrangements were mostly improvised. But with El Camino and this record, there was nothin’.
What’s behind the increased prominence of keyboards on this record?
Whatever keyboard I grab, it’s like completely new sound to me. Whereas, with a guitar, there’s ways you can dress it up, but it’s always a guitar. We love the process of experimentation, and keyboards are fun to experiment with; they’re all so different. I’m not a keyboard player, so when I sit down, I really simplify my mind and think about things differently, and I like that. You can almost get too good at something, and then it gets in the way. So keyboards help me keep it simple.
What keyboards did you play yourself on this record?
The Hammond with the spring reverb, the Farfisa and the Ace Tone – a strange ’60s keyboard – are some of my favorites. We use the Mellotron and Optigan a lot. We’ve got a couple synthesizers that we use for liquid analog sounds. They’re all keyboards that you can get a million and one sound out of.
Typically, how would you begin a track begin in terms of instrumentation?
It varies. But whether it’s drums and bass, drums and keyboards or drums and guitar, there’s always a foundation to every song of a live performance, and then we add to that. Bass and drums is how we started almost every song on Brothers. We’ve used that formula a lot. You have to keep things simple when you’re playing the bass, and I like being able to lock in with Pat on the kick drum. He’s a very unorthodox drummer, and sometimes it sounds best when you start with the rhythm section.
Sounds like some of the drum parts are processed on the new album.
We’ve always manipulated our drums since our very first record. We don’t like straight-up dry drums; we like them kinda gnarly and messed up, like those rap records that we used to try to copy the sound of.
Your bass is also featured. It certainly is on the first single, “Fever”.
The single was recorded in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and that was drums and bass to start. We spent two weeks in Benton Harbor recording; that was before Sunset Sound. “Fever”, “Gotta Get Away” and “It’s Up to You Now” were all recorded in Benton Harbor at a studio called Keyclub Recording Co., which is a really amazing place. They’ve got Sly Stone’s old Flickinger console, and it’s filled with amazing and weird and fun instruments.
You’re following up a big hit album. Do you feel the pressure?
We think about it as inspiration and a challenge, and it’s fun to be challenged, to try to outdo yourself. But at the same time, it’s weird because it’s not like we go into a record trying to duplicate the hit. Bands have a hit, then they go in the studio and try to do the exact same thing. We’ve never done that. We had a hit on Brothers with “Tighten Up,” and then we went in the studio and we recorded a completely different album. I don’t know if that’s smart or not, but I think in the long run it’ll probably be smart, although it would keep most record labels scratching their heads as to why we would do that. Same with this record: We didn’t go in and make another El Camino. Our attention span is too short. I mean, we’re into so many things, and there’s too much to enjoy about music to get stuck on one thing.
The original perception of the Black Keys as a blues duo has been obliterated at this point. Did Brian’s role change or expand on this record?
No, it was the same. There are absolutely no rules. We go in and we just go at it and try to come up with something that we all really love. That’s it. Those are the only parameters.
And you never say, “We need a single for this album”?
If we hear something like “Fever” and we think it’s catchy, we might say, “That sounds like it could be a single.” But at the same time, we don’t really listen to the radio, so we aren’t really qualified to pick a single. We let the labels [Nonesuch and Warner Bros.] pick our singles, and if it happens, great. We love that, because that means more people will hear our music and more people will come to our shows, which is ultimately our goal. But I’m not going to try to do that, because that would just feel wrong. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t seem appealing.
It’s unusual to open an album with a down-tempo seven-minute song.
Immediately after we recorded “Weight Of Love” in L.A., we said, “Ah, that’s the first song.” We just love how hushed it began, and how raucous it ended. That was fun for us, and we thought it would be a great way to start a record.
The main difference between El Camino and Turn Blue is that you have to spend time with this one before it opens up.
Yeah, it’s not an obvious record, and we hope that the listener pays attention. It’s a lot to ask in this day and age, but that’s our goal.
INTERVIEW: BUD SCOPPA
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Following the triumph of El Camino, Auerbach, Carney and Danger Mouse roll the dice, play it where it lays...
Following the triumph of El Camino, Auerbach, Carney and Danger Mouse roll the dice, play it where it lays…