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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Dan Auerbach Turns Blue

While considering what to write for this month’s Recording’s column, I thought it would be interesting to write about the role of the producer on an artist’s album. However since that is such a broad topic that could literally fill volumes, I decided to focus on an artist who has been incredibly prolific lately as both a producer and an artist.

Dan Auerbach came immediately to mind as he is both a Grammy Award winning producer and recording artist. A delightful moment of irony occurred when I remembered that my fellow Open Air host, Paul Gerardi, featured Auerbach’s rival in the Recordings column of the August issue – Jack White! Although one can understand the rivalry of two super talents who have performed in duo formats (Jack White’s The White Stripes and Dan Auerbach’s The Black Keys), as individual artists their work stands out and in my opinion, they are both great contemporary artists whose comparisons end there.

While most well known for his work as half of the duo that is The Black Keys, his extensive list of production credits proves he’s as adept behind the mixing console as he is on the microphone and guitar. Auerbach produced what many believed was the revitalization of Dr. John’s career with his 2012 album Locked Down. The list of other artists he has produced these last few years includes an exceptional array of diverse talent that he has crafted into extraordinary albums. He has produced some younger talent, including Valerie June’s extraordinary Pushin Against A Stone and Nikki Lane’s “outlaw country” album All or Nothin’; he also nurtured a new sound from Ray LaMontagne in 2014’s stellar Supernova and much to my surprise produced Lana Del Ray’s new Ultraviolent.

Despite his full plate as a producer, Auerbach found time to return to the studio with fellow Black Key, Patrick Carney to produce what is, in my opinion a great return to form in 2014’s True Blue. For their eighth album, they once again turned to producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton (another influential producer) who has been at the helm for the band’s previous three releases, including their 2011 platinum-plus Grammy Award winning El Camino. As a big fan of their 2010 recording Brothers, I was personally disappointed by El Camino which in my opinion felt like a juvenile one dimensional romp. So when I first heard True Blue I was both relieved and excited to hear that their return to form set sail into unexpectedly dark, psychedelic directions, as opposed to its hook-laden pop predecessor. It’s a more moody yet very engaging and rhythmic piece of work that really highlights the Black Keys’ musical diversity.  

In a four-and-a-half star review, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke calls the album, “a return to basics.. a giant step into the best, most consistently gripping album the Keys have ever made. The added soul in Auerbach’s vocals, and the extra beauty of the tunes, give the album a slow-burn warmth.” Many, including David Dye of the World Café, have commented on how unusual it was to open the album with a 7 minute melancholy song like “Weight of Love”. But in fact, it was that opening guitar riff that caught my attention and compelled me to listen to the album in its entirety as I knew instantly that this mature work would be a welcome departure from the adolescent El Camino. Indeed, not one song disappointed…except maybe the last track, “Gotta Get Away”, which some have called a return to the rock of El Camino!

Recorded following a very public and very traumatic divorce, perhaps that turmoil moved Auerbach to take a giant step into the most consistently gripping album the Black Keys have ever made, including another personal favorite, their big hit Brothers (2010). That album’s “mid-fi” mix of sixties soul and midwest-garage glam was a definite breakthrough, but Turn Blue is a genuine turning point – into original rock, with deeper shade of blues. There is still the vigor of the Black Keys' first records of a decade ago. But there is more confidence in Turn Blue with its honest emotions, bold musical statements and rich multi-layered texture. With hip-hop allusions, super-size guitar rock and studio flourishes, it feels like this is the album the Black Keys have been intending to record with Danger Mouse since 2008's Attack & Release. Turn Blue feels like an arrival, perhaps it’s just adulthood.