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Music Reviews — The Black Keys, Clear Plastic Masks, Neil Young

Black Keys retain their alt-rock crown

The Black Keys “Turn Blue” (Nonesuch Records)

It’s been four years and several Grammy wins since the Black Keys’ breakthrough album, “Brothers,” and the kings of alternative-rock show no sign of letting their hard-earned crown slip.

“Turn Blue,” their eighth album and follow-up to 2011’s platinum-selling “El Camino,” is arguably their best yet.

Superproducer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton is at the helm once again, adding layers of complex orchestration to singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney’s trademark blues-rock backbeat.

The album kicks off with the jaw-dropping “Weight of Love” — a seven-minute odyssey demonstrating the high confidence coursing through the band’s recording studio last summer.

Starting with a simple acoustic guitar line, the hushed opening builds into an epic meditation on love and loss, with Auerbach’s intertwining guitar solos dissolving in a haze of reverb; the sound of a band operating at the peak of its power.

The stunning calling card is followed by three songs that rank among the best in the Keys’ canon, including the menacing title track (“I really don’t think you know, there could be hell below,” croons Auerbach over an echo-soaked piano) and omnipresent lead-off single, “Fever,” which couples a synth riff and bone-crunching bass. Elsewhere, distorted tribal drums and a snaking guitar line mark spacey rocker “It’s Up to You Now” out as a future single — an explosion of Delta blues by way of Saturn.

It’s not all smooth sailing. Auerbach’s falsetto vocals on lovelorn ballad “Waiting on Words” lack emotional punch, while the funk bass line repeated throughout “10 Lovers” is stymied by a keyboard riff so high-pitched it will set any dog within a mile radius running for cover.

Thankfully, the Keys immediately recover their sure footing, closing the album with two tracks at opposite ends of the band’s musical spectrum.

Jimi Hendrix’s spirit comes through in the psychedelic guitar workout “In Our Prime,” while album closer “Gotta Get Away” is an unashamedly pop-y track destined to become a summer anthem.

The Akron, Ohio-based band’s evolution from a simple guitar-and-drums duo to a fully formed, Grammy Award-winning stadium rock act is remarkable.

Their once limited black-and-white palette now boasts hundreds of contrasting colors — long may it continue.

— Matthew Kemp

Associated Press

Righteous rock from Clear Plastic Masks

Clear Plastic Masks “Being There” (Serpents & Snakes)

Nashville’s burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll music scene just got even better with the release of Clear Plastic Masks’ “Being There.”

The greasy, ‘70s rock-addled quartet got together in Brooklyn, New York, and came to Nashville, Tennessee, to record. They never left, signing with Kings of Leon label Serpents & Snakes Records and helping round out a music scene that’s gotten a lot of attention in recent years.

“Being There” was produced by Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic, and the album shares a lot of the hallmarks that helped make the Shakes a surprise breakout.

First, there’s charismatic lead singer Andrew Katz, who like the Shakes’ Brittany Howard, has a commanding stage presence, an interesting voice and an off-kilter point of view and songwriting sense that can appeal to many different listeners. And like the Shakes, Katz’s backing band shares a powerful chemistry that’s unusual in a group just on the scene.

The band has two modes: lounge and loud. Katz has a tendency to lean back and croon from time to time, sitting at the keyboard with a twinkling grin. But Clear Plastic Masks is at its best on songs like “Pegasus in Glue,” “Shakedown” and the film score-ready “Dos Cobras,” tracks where Katz leans in and really joins with the band like a closed fist.

— Chris Talbott Associated Press

Young delivers heartfelt ‘A Letter Home’

Neil Young “A Letter Home” (Reprise)

Neil Young’s sporadic concept records aren’t for everyone. “A Letter Home” should be.

While still an esoteric venture, the songs he chose are familiar ones, making this more accessible than previous out in left field Young releases. Among the songs: Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and “Crazy,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” They are a reflection of Young’s roots and musical backbone.

Young, 68, was captivated by the Voice-O-Graph that Jack White had restored and made available at his recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Typically used by amateurs to record one song at a time, which is immediately laid down on vinyl, Young decided to cram himself into the phone booth-sized contraption.

— Scott Bauer Associated Press

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