Archive | May 2014

The Black Keys Continue Their Arena Dominance with ‘Turn Blue’

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This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.

The Black Keys have never been good at playing the part they’ve been cast in.  Starting out in the clubs of Akron, Ohio,  Dan Auerbach was fond of saying the bad was too bluesy for the punk crowd, too punk for the blues crowd.  Now he’s the frontman for the sorta-two-piece blues-rock-soul outfit that happens to be among the biggest rock bands in the world.  They’ve been characterized as rigid traditionalists and crass sellouts.  A quick perusal of customer reviews will show accusations from long-time fans and blues purists deriding the synthesizers, disco-heavy beats, and Danger Mouse’s atmospheric fluff.  At every turn the band has managed to find a new set of complaints to be levied against them.  And with Turn Blue, the group’s 8th album, they manage to plant themselves in every detractors cross-hairs, coming away gloriously with one of their strongest records to date, one that solidifies every strength they’ve been honing for years since turning away from their early two-man riff rock.

This wonderful mess of contradictions is made apparent from the get go as “Weight of Love” starts with a country-blues-esque acoustic guitar before being joined by piano melodies and crashing drum fills.  And then, an honest-to-god, skyward-reaching, guitar solo comes in.  Fuzz drenched and emerging from a low rumble, more David Gilmour than Junior Kimbrough.  They’ve never sounded so much like a classic rock band, yet they sound as vital as ever.  The song ends in twin guitar carnage, left and right matching each other note for note, building to a thrilling climax.

The Black Keys

And from there they proceed to roll through every trick in their ever-growing arsenal.  “In Time” starts with a crooked railroad spike beat before turning into a horn fueled New Orleans-ian stomp.  “Fever” takes the currently omnipresent disco back beat and turns it into the sort of arena rock stomp the Black Keys have perfected of late (albeit with a synthesizer lead where distorted guitars once reigned for them). Meanwhile the title-track disassembles the four-on-the-floor approach into a pulsing bass line and crashing symbols, turning down the bravado and upping the sultry quotient by several times.  It’s the sound of falling into quicksand, being pulled under, and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below.   It’s an intriguing track, and a testament to how far the group has come in their songwriting, being able to apply their tried-and-true approaches to new sounds.

And the new sounds are brought in by the bus load compliments of producer Danger Mouse.  From the horn fueled fanfare that spell the verses on “In Time” to the crystalline harmonies that overtake and power “Year in Review” or the encroaching wall of fuzz in “10 Lovers”, the details are exquisitely rendered, and I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy at some of the hidden gems tucked behind Auerbach’s full voice.

A voice which is also the star of the show here.  From the beginning of their career, he’s sounded most at home with a ragged bellowing over top Patrick Carney’s oversize beats.  The biggest treat here though is the falsetto that came as such a shock on Brothers’ opener, “Everlasting Love”.  What once was a new trick is now a favorite weapon, deployed strategically throughout the album as either a buoyant ray of light on the bass heavy beats or for a disarming turn of phrase.

What’s most impressive, though, is that his growth as a singer is matched by his growth as a songwriter.  I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed watching a band delve into the mainstream consciousness as I have the Black Keys, and a large part of that is due to the growth in Dan Auerbach’s songwriting.  Where he once relied on matching tried-and-true blues boilerplates with big riffs, his obsession with soul and R&B paired with a knack for surprisingly catchy melodies allow a wider variety.  Of the many bands mining classic soul and blues, few make it theirs like the Black Keys do.

And even fewer, it should be said, have the likes of Danger Mouse to give their songs a psychedelic depth and Carney’s facility at turning a slow burner into a low-end heavy, radio-friendly blaze.  Almost-closer “In Our Prime” is a perfect example of that growth, the emotional centerpiece of the record that starts as a standard R&B ballad until the first verse ends and you’re thrown into a see-sawing trapdoor; deceptively upbeat and subtly disconcerting.  The chorus offers the emotional payoff the beginning promised while never really offering the catharsis you’d expect, “we made our mark when we were in our prime”.

It’s a relatable lament, but one that doesn’t quite ring true for the Black Keys.  Whether they’re in their prime or not is debatable, but regardless, Turn Blue is among the strongest offerings yet from a band that is slowly but surely solidifying themselves among the greats.

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Black Girls Continue Their Psych-Funk Reign of RVA with ‘Claire Sinclaire’

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Two bass hits. Kick drum. Snare.  Again.  Hi-hats slot themselves in between.  REPEAT! Richmond, Virginia’s  Black Girls have never been a subtle band and not yet half a dozen seconds into their second album, Claire Sinclaire, they’ve established what your next 35 minutes are going to be about.  Funk and soul had always been an influence, but now it’s a mandate.  There’s swagger and energy, a groove that pretends to accidentally bump into you then grinds into your hips.  You’re not sure if you want to join, but you probably will.  Singer Drew Gilham slides in with a whisper.  He exhales the next line, doesn’t even sing it.  Coos to you next.  Guitars descend and suddenly it’s no longer a suggestion, “You’ve got to get your hands up..if I survive, I will supply!”

“On the First Night” suggests Black Girls is narrowing its focus to the soul funk inflections that made their last album, 2011’s Hell Dragon such a danceable affair, and to a certain extent that’s true.  “Soul Tornado” is propelled with spiked jazz chords and a disco beat, “Waltz” kicks its feet up again drapes of piano and a Stax-esque hi-hat and cymbal ride, and “Del Mar” would be a disco ballad if not for the fuzzed out guitar lines.  The touches share a common theme but the album’s most fun when they stretch themselves out of that box.

“Bangin’ LA” grinds, but not the kind the band typically deals in.  This is more of a slow motion jackhammer dismantling a lawn mower as a tiny war elephant looks on (and that ripping sax solo is the sound of said war elephant fighting said lawn mower as a nearby bonfire is fed a crate of worn-out Sticky Fingers records).   First single “Buyin’ Time” nestles surf-rock guitars next  to jaunty indie pop and buckets of reverb (while not my favorite piece of work here here, it seems directly targeted to indie-blogs who eat up anything described by the words surf and pop and slathered in reverb), and “Waltz” has a literal countdown to the solo while the coda to “Sometimes” allows the shimmying psych-soul nugget to soar away on guitar-solo wings.

 

And then there’s “Lover”, a staple of their live set for some time and a perfect distillation of the funk, soul, and psychedelics that Black Girls likes to call snuff rock.  As pop songcraft it’s as effortless as it is masterful.  The kind of song that walks up to you to hold your hand but cops a feel instead.  Guitars wah, the beat struts, a trumpet circles in from above, all grinding to a halt for the chorus.  Sung slightly differently every time, yet always pitched with an indelible mix of resentment, determination, lament,  and wistful hope, “If I was your lover/You should know/I’d treat you better”.

As sophmore albums go, it’s hard to do better than Claire Sinclaire does here.  The record shows a further refinement of their sound while branching out enough to bring in new fans.  It’s weird but accessible, danceable but complex.  It’s an exciting next step for a band that seems to be getting better and better.