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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Black Keys: Turn Blue (Release Date: 5-13-2014), and Coldplay: Ghost Stories (Release Date: 5-19-2014)

        For two bands who don't actually sound much like one another, Coldplay and The Black Keys sure do have a lot in common. They're both household names, a rare accomplishment for a rock band in the year 2014. Both could be (and have been) criticized for riding the coattails of more innovative acts who came immediately before them (U2 playing Coldplay's granddaddy, The White Stripes fathering the Keys), both surpassing their forbearers in terms of fame and fortune along the way. Finally, they each lay claim to their own extremely exacting sound, one that leaves room for precious little experimentation, ensuring that each new release, while pleasurable, can feel remarkably 'same-y'. Perhaps each recognizing their creative stasis, both The Black Keys and Coldplay decided to mix it up... within a week of one other. How could these albums not be reviewed in tandem?

        Coldplay is a proud graduate of the School of More is More, frequently stuffing their songs with as much orchestration and sky-scrapping vocals as can possibly fit. Anyone who's listened to the radio at least twice in the past decade can tell you that this game plan often works (Yellow, Clocks, Viva La Vida, Paradise, Fix You, The Scientist, Lost... should I keep going?), though their song-to-song familiarity has become the impetus of much scornful snickering over the years. Ghost Stories dials everything back; eight of the nine tracks on hand (we'll get to the outlier later) feel about half as dense as the outfit's average offering, prompting listeners to hone in and come closer, rather than rushing out to meet them through every shopping mall, fast food joint, and car speaker in America. It's a remarkably smaller sound, one that harkens back to the band's still-popular debut disc, Parachutes, though favoring a far more electronic aesthetic this time around.

        Though their reign at the top has been decidedly shorter, one could argue that The Black Keys' sound is already more worn out than Coldplay's. With Dan Auerbach's raspy howl and chunky, muscular guitar riffs ever front-and-center, the band's faux-grit-and-grime blues rock sound has proven both immediate and repetitive. Each of their albums starts off with a head full of steam, steadily loosing listener interest through lack of variation, and exhausting sonic front-loading, not unlike a 3-D movie that starts out great, and makes your eye balls ache by the end. Their latest effort, Turn Blue, feels far more spacious than anything I've heard from the duo before, Auerbach and drummer Joe Carney each taking about three steps back, and allowing their moodier, mid-tempo tracks to breath a little. The mega-catchy, stadium-sized riffs and wily chants are largely absent here, replaced by more varied instrumentation, and a surprisingly increased reliance on Auerbach's falsetto. It's certainly not their most energetic approach, but it might just be my favorite.

        About half the tracks here are nearly impossible to imagine on another release of their's; the six-string that guides Year in Review comes enrobed in a swirl of violin, back-up singers, and additional percussion, while the wah-pedal lilt of In Our Prime would have previously proven too leisurely. Both are stand-out numbers on an album that, at just over 45 minutes, is remarkably listenable in one sitting, something I never thought I'd write about The Black Keys. It doesn't hurt that they lead off with arguably the best song of their career: Weight of Love announces Turn Blue's intentions right off the bat, drifting out of speakers like a soft mist, Auerbach's voice tucked away until past the two minute mark, and only sparingly employed thereafter. Stretching all the way out to the seven-minute mark, Weight grows at steady clip, morphing into an enormous guitar-solo throw down by its conclusion. It'll never make it as a pop song, but these boys have already made enough of those; this is an epic.

         Ghost Stories, on the other hand, is entirely bereft of epics, or even attempts at epics for that matter. It's almost difficult to believe that Magic is really the lead single on a Coldplay album, light axe strumming and a simple drum beat ushering us in where we're used to having enormous, almost confrontational big-ness hold the door open. It's a pleasant listen, something that could be said about the entirety of Ghost Stories, but those anticipating another massive Coldplay anthem won't find one here. As a matter of fact, the disc sounds determined to avoid such a hit, a pervasive hush defining all proceedings until the head-scratching, dance-floor-ready A Sky Full of Stars comes out of absolutely no where. It's a jarring tonal shift on an album full of quiet heartbreak, the perfect opposite of having the lights turned on and the music shut off at a club. Maybe working with Rihanna on Princess of China wore off on them; Stars would fit far more readily in the songstress' catalogue of bangers than it does here.

        A week following its initial release, Coldplay's latest is already being referred to as the band's worst disc to date, which is understandable regardless of wether it's accurate. There's no real world-conquering going on here, but for my money, its minimalist sway is vastly preferable to Mylo Xyloto's unrelenting excess. That album became just plain exhausting after a few listens, so many ideas and flourishes packed into every waking moment. I for one admire Ghost Stories' more modest ambitions. The miss-steps might be fairly glaring, Martin's cliche-ridden lyrics pushed up front and center by hushed sonics, Midnight's status as a Bon Iver rip-off proving unforgivably obvious (if still lovely), but this is no disaster. It's pleasant, nocturnal easy listening that's being overly punished for a lack of real hits... unless we're hedging our bets with A Sky Full of Stars. 

        Turn Blue is also being met with less-than-stellar reviews, though my support of the Keys' latest is far less passive. Again, the lack of radio playability will prove a demerit for some, but this is by far my favorite LP by the two-piece yet. Unfurling in a steady, funky rumble, the album is confident enough to let you come to it, and not the other way around. Even those who are bored by the languid grooves of In Time or the title track get to have their cake too, crunchy single Fever serving as the album's better-every-time-I-hear-it aspiring hit, closer Gotta Get Away sending us home on a rollicking sing-a-long with the good ol' boys. The Black Keys have always wanted to sound like a band from another era, tripping themselves up along the way by applying pop accessibility to a sound that doesn't intrinsically possess a whole hell of a lot. On Turn Blue, they finally go broke on their 70's aspirations, and, to these ears, they've never sounded better.

Turn Blue Grade: B+
Ghost Stories Grade: B-

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