Sound — 8
The Black Keys are a popular American blues-rock band from Akron, Ohio. They are so popular in fact that this album, the band's eighth, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. How The Black Keys, a band of just two members that self-recorded their first few albums in a basement, has managed to achieve such acclaim, I do not know. Sure, the music is good, but it just seems that every widely popular band in the post-MTV world needs to have some sort of image factor whether it is Lady Gaga's ridiculously bombastic image or Kurt Cobain's sheer minimalist image.
So how do two dorky looking guys manage to command such leagues of fans?
Whatever the answer, I give The Black Keys enormous credit for earning their fame without a characteristic image. As best I can see though, their fame must come through the music. With "Turn Blue," The Black Keys continue to impress with their musical acumen. While they do exhibit exciting some musical growth, The Black Keys' best asset on this album is their variety. The Black Keys manage to do one of the hardest things in popular music: sound fresh and exciting each song even though they each have the same musical premise. They also beautifully bridge the gap between songs notable for their experience (usually the genres of drone, ambient, fusion, and post-rock/metal) and songs notable for their catchy rhythm (usually from genres of pop, glam, and hard rock). Each of the songs on this album has some sort of catchy melody or rhythm but at the same time, each has enough underlying, ancillary parts to keep the piece interesting even if the listener does not particularly like the melody/rhythm.
These underlying "parts," for lack of a better word, affirm The Black Keys' production values and overall good taste. The instruments used for these parts vary throughout to fit the music; sometimes they involve acoustic guitar, other times they utilize piano or some sort of exotic sounding synthesizer or maybe even an unusual type of guitar distortion. They are always delicately placed in the mix to add to the overall sound and provide something interesting to search for while at the same time not subtracting from the main melody of the song.
The guitar work from Dan Auerbach is excellent as well. While there are many aspects of the guitar work on this album that are great, Auerbach's use of distortion is most interesting. Assuming that all of the guitar on the album came from a physical guitar at some point in the signal chain (not some sort of MIDI controller), it's spectacular what different tones Auerbach is able to extract. Whether clean or dirty, dark or light, chorused or delayed, Auerbach finds what he needs to make the songs as good as they can possibly be. Keeping track of all of the sounds Auerbach uses is harder and arguably more interesting than doing anything else with this album.
The most intriguing of Dan Auerbach's choices is not his guitar tones, but rather the taste with which he applies them. Most of the songs heavily rely on Auerbach's guitar parts apart from the melody to find their footing. The little nuances of Auerbach's playing add so much to the songs, serving to create compositions that are interesting enough to warrant excessive replays of the songs, even if many have a somewhat pop base. A case in point is the opening song "Weight of Love," in which he builds the song up until it crescendos, much like "Stairway to Heaven," in a guitar solo that can be only described as epic. Auerbach's use of dynamics as well as taste creates the epic feeling of the guitar solo, not the solo itself; that is the beauty of the guitar work on this album.
Despite the good qualities described above, I still think The Black Keys have room to grow. I do not know whether they have the ability to get to where I think they should be, but as it stands, they have not gone over the hump from good to great. They have all the right elements, but nothing that they have done, including their most famous song "Tighten Up," has ever gone over the hump that many bands come to. I can see why The Black Keys' music has given them fame (though not as much as they have gotten) but I believe that they will need to go a little further if they want to be one of those bands that we still remember thirty years from now.
Lyrics — 7
While The Black Keys display many supreme talents throughout this album, vocal ability is not among them. While I could understand some people finding Dan Auerbach's head voice as touching, his voice as a whole is neither sincere (for the songs about love) nor true; the little emotion put forth does not seem real. The vocals are at least adequate; neither bad nor good, but the magnitude and skill of the rest of the album demand a better performance, if he can even give one.
Overall Impression — 8
In conclusion, this album is a step in the right direction for The Black Keys. In an effort to shun radio singles, The Black Keys have written their most in-depth album in a while, possibly ever. On the guitar, Dan Auerbach exhibits considerable skill, but more importantly, he exhibits variety and good taste.
I understand that I have for the most part excluded the other half of The Black Keys, drummer Patrick Carney, from the review. But that is purposeful; the drumming does not play that significant a role in this album; the guitar work takes center stage, with the vocals trailing behind.