If the pink-and-blue Day-Glo patterns on the Digipak of the Black Keys’ Turn Blue don’t bring back the psychedelic era for you, you probably weren’t there the first time around. But if you know the music of the time, Dan Auerbach’s jagged, fuzz-driven guitar solo in “Weight of Love” should remind you of the Jefferson Airplane or Quicksilver Messenger Service. Turn Blue is another step away from the DIY garage-band sound that characterized the Keys’ early discs, and it’s even more polished and musically varied than their last outing, El Camino.
Turn Blue is the Black Keys’ eighth album, and its fourth to be co-produced with Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, who shares the songwriting credits and played on all tracks, alongside Auerbach and Patrick Carney, the official band members. Burton’s contribution is significant. The keyboards and other sounds that run through Turn Blue expand the Keys’ musical palette and enrich the songs.
While there are hints of the psychedelic, Turn Blue effortlessly encompasses many other styles. The fuzz bass and Farfisa-style keyboards in “Fever” give the song a late-’60s AM-radio vibe, and the song has the infectious groove of the best singles of that era. The title track has an undercurrent of ’70s soul, with Auerbach reaching at points for a falsetto that gives the song some of its romantic appeal. “Bullet in the Brain” also taps into the ’70s, but this time it’s heavy rock the band aims for, evoking Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd without merely copying them.
“It’s Up to You Now” and “Gotta Get Away” should reassure longtime fans that the Black Keys can still play uncomplicated rock’n’roll. Auerbach and Carney produced both tracks without Danger Mouse’s help, perhaps to remind themselves they can still keep things basic. Turn Blue is sonically dense, and Danger Mouse is certainly the reason for its complexity.
Despite the fact that Danger Mouse shares the songwriting credits, my impression isn’t that he imposed on the Black Keys a change in direction. It’s more likely that Auerbach and Carny, having developed into such strong players, grew restless. Carney is a drummer of considerable skill, fluid and musical, with a hard punch, and Auerbach has become more technically proficient on guitar without losing the visceral punch that makes his playing so energetic.
Both musicians have such individual styles that they don’t get lost in the production, but they do have to fight through unnecessarily bad sound. Turn Blue is marked by layered vocal harmonies and ambient keyboard effects that fill out the arrangements; had the sound been handled more carefully, the disc would be a richer experience. Auerbach’s bass playing is as melodically arresting as his guitar work, but Tchad Blake’s mix pushes the bass and Carney’s kick drum so far forward that many other details in the recording are overwhelmed.
Brian Lacey’s mastering, at least on this disc, leans toward compression, which makes the sound even murkier. Loud passages are disturbingly grungy. Turn Blue is a great rock’n’roll record for the car or computer, but in hi-fi -- even mid-fi -- its sound becomes more than a little annoying. A record with such good musicianship, and with so many things going on that should reward close listening, deserved better.
. . . Joseph Taylor