Deconstructing 'Fever' By The Black Keys (Co-Written & Co-Produced by Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton)

  It’s been a little less than three years since The Black Keys released their last album ‘El Camino’, which was most likely due to the fact that they set out to conquer, and then re-conquer the arena rock touring circuit, while also finding time to play for, and to produce other artists. But finally the time has come, and The Black Keys are back with their new LP ‘Turn Blue’, released on May 12, 2014. The meaning of the album’s title is pretty interesting, click here to find out more (look under the section 'Packaging and title').  

As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered what really helped boost The Black Keys to career, and what is a consistent source of income for them (aside from owning a niche sound, being a two piece, touring endlessly, and moving to Nashville), I encourage you to read this, as the power of Synch licensing (i.e. – getting it into commercials, movies, etc.) is very strong.

Fever’ is the first single released from ‘Turn Blue’, and I’m a fan, despite the average and sub-par ratings it’s received from online critiques. It maintains The Black Keys’ signature sound and groove, is within the typical time constraints of a radio single (3:30-4 mins), yet has clever main stream pop elements and various instrumentation layering, which keeps it interesting and on the outskirts of an average Billboard Top 100 production.

It takes a few active listening sessions to really notice the intricacies of 'Fever', which probably comes via Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton's production. I couldn’t have been more excited to read that they again collaborated with Burton on this release, who is a really big influence in the music I write. He is a stellar musician/producer who needs to smile more in his press photos because he looks way too serious, way too often, but I digress.
 

The Black Keys recently did an NPR interview and it was interesting to hear  that they took somewhat of a different approach in writing the tracks for this album, and that musically, ‘Fever’ was based around the opening organ line, figuring out the bass and guitar chords after the fact.

Funny story (or maybe not depending on your sense of humor), upon first listen, the organ line immediately had me thinking that the song was going to be super shitty. But given the context (previewing it on my iPad), I knew what audio constraints I was up against.

My only major complaint with this track is that they didn’t take advantage of utilizing a half time feel during the instrumental ending (starts around 3:32), but went in the opposite direction of having the snare hit on every beat for the first half, and then getting back to the original 2/4 groove during the second half. I would have loved to hear this track end like 'Perfect World' by Broken Bells, where the snare hits on the third beat of every measure (as prevalent in pretty much EVERY hip hop beat created). Although, if I had my way, every song would have at least one off-time signature section and one breakdown….mmmm…off-time breakdowns.

Ok, so here we go.

The structure of 'Fever' is as follows:
 
Sections Time (min:sec)
Intro (A) START-:15
Intro (B) :16-:30
Vs 1 & 2 (A) :31-:45 & 1:39-1:53
Vs 1 & 2 (B) :46-1:00 & 1:54-2:08
Chorus 1 & 2 (A) 1:01 -1:16 & 2:09-2:23
Chorus 1 & 2 (B) 1:17-1:31 & 2:24-2:38
Post Chorus 1:32-1:38
Bridge 2:39-3:24
Outro* 3:25-END

*Notice that the song ends with an instrumental outro, and that there is no third chorus, as common in most "hit" songs. The Black Keys can get away with this because (A) they've already established themselves as a popular act and (B) it fits their style of music. You will seldom find this song structure on a Billboard Top 100 radio single.*

Intro (A)
  • Four snare hits kick off the track, introducing the 4/4 time signature. Notice this intro snare tone is a lot brighter, with less body, than the snare tone throughout the rest of the track. This leads me to believe that it’s either a sampled snare (sounds 8-bit-ish…yes, I make up my own words), or just eq’d with a lot of high end and attack. The groove starts off with the kick, snare, closed hi-hat and bass. The bass has a tad of distortion on it…keep that in mind. All instruments are center panned.
  • Notice that the bass line does not lock in with the kick on every hit, but does lock in at various notes throughout each measure, this gives the track a very solid foundation and groove.
  • Half way thru the measure, a shaker rhythm is introduced (slightly panned left), and a tambourine (panned center) accents on each snare hit.
  • NOTE: So the bass line...what I love about a majority of Burton's productions, is that the melody instruments don’t typically repeat after each measure, they span across two measures which allows them to have more character and keeps things interesting. However, the technique is mostly effective due to the genres he produces in. If he was producing a punk band, this approach would most likely not sound so dope.
  • During the second measure, the guitar line (in all of it's dirty rock tone glory) is introduced with a slide, panned hard left, and the tambourine now hits on every 8th note.
  • When the guitar comes in, a reverb track is now introduced (panned hard left) with a percussive element that follows every snare hit, and a simple 1-2-3 tom fill is placed at the end of each guitar chord change. The tone of the toms are very dull, with a bit of reverb and are center panned.
  • Finally, to round off this section, a high register (aka higher toned strings on a guitar) guitar hit is added to accent every snare hit (panned about 20% right), which is used very frequently again, in Burton’s productions and in a lot of Black Keys tracks.
Intro (B)
  • The only thing different here is the organ line (plus a cymbal hit transition), I so fondly spoke of before, panned about 40% right, with an auxiliary reverb track, panned left to keep balance.
An auxiliary track, in essence, is the main track sent to an aux channel (either post or pre, these make a difference) which allow for additional effects and panning to be used accordingly while still being able to separately control the level and effects of/on the original track.

VS 1 (A)
  • Here come the lyrics, and what’s the very first word spoken? Yep, the title of the song. It’s used very frequently in each verse and chorus so you don't forget it.
  • There is an interesting reverse sound in the right channel when the word “where’d” is sung, most likely of the percussive reverb-ish element I mentioned in Intro A.
  • Everything drops out and we are mainly back to the instruments that kicked off the song: kick, snare, hat, shaker, tamb (on every snare hit), and bass. As I tried to drive home in my last 'Deconstruct' post, it's important to recognize that dynamics make a song. This reduction of instrumentation also helps the listener focus on the lyrics, by not having the massive layering of instruments at the start of the song.
  • The mix now has room for some pretty sweet vocal effects that move across the stereo spectrum: distortion and delay, which are applied at the middle and end of each vocal line...sometimes evolving into a guitar-eque tone.
VS 1 (B)
  • The accenting guitar panned slightly left is brought back in.
  • The simple tom fill is brought back during the second to last measure.
Chorus (A)
  • So now we have every element of Intro B, minus the high register guitar hit, and the simple tom fill in every measure.
  • The vocal melodies are panned stereo (hard left & right)
Chorus (B)
  • Now another organ line and tone is introduced, panned slightly left with some reverb and a bright tone.
Post Chorus
  • So instead of going directly into the second chorus, a post chorus is utilized to give the listener a short instrumental break, while the last word of the chorus has a lengthy delay panning the stereo field.
  • This break starts with the bass and notice that it’s distortion level has increased since the first time we heard it really on its own at the beginning of the track.
  • The snare and its percussive reverb accent hit, bring the drums, kick, shaker and tambs back in with vengeance.
VS 2 (A & B)
  • Same as VS 1 (A) & (B), however notice that at the end of this second verse, the snare drops out (again for dynamic purposes), to allow for the following chorus to have a stronger impact when it comes in. Can you hear how much louder the tamb is when it’s not sharing the snare frequencies in the mix?
Bridge
  • All instrumentation fades out, while strings and a new (slightly louder and brighter) guitar tone and chord progression is introduced. The guitar is now appearing towards the right channel of the stereo spectrum, while the strings fill up the left channel. Both are panned around 35-40% on their respective sides.
  • The common tom fill kicks off the end of the first measure, while the second measure re-introduces the kick, snare (with a clap every snare hit on four), hat and tambs. BUT now notice the tambs are panned hard left, from their original spot which was slightly left of center.
  • The shaker is brought back to accent the end of each measure, after the lyrics come back in, panned slightly to the right of center.
  • Also note that at the second half of this bridge, the hi-hat accents with open/close hit accents and if you pay attention, some of the hits sound off giving it that human and non-quantized feel you heard so often these days in electronic music and Billboard Top 40 hits.
INSIDER TIP: A simple way to get a gauge how instruments are panned and if aux channels are being used to increase presence of any given instrument, is to listen to the track thru headphones (earbuds are the easiest). When a new instrument is introduced, pop out one ear bud, and if the instrument drops out (or It’s volume level has significantly decreased), then you know that the panning is mainly in the earbud you removed. Just make sure you have your earbuds inserted in the correct ears, or everything is going to be opposite. Make sense? Just be careful to not listen too loud as you run the chance of ruining your money makers (aka - ears)!

Outro
  • Now we are at the end of the track, and are gifted with a great instrumental outro, which is a nice departure the usual third chorus repeat (remember above when I mentioned that  the track had elements that kept it on the outskirts of a typical Billboard Top 100 hit?)
  • A lead synth line is introduced, panned between 30/35% left, with an aux reverb track panned to the right channel.
  • The right panned guitar introduced during the Bridge, now mimics the lead synth line an octave lower.
  • It sounds like there is a strummed guitar, hitting on every beat, with a flange effect creating an interesting atmosphere for the lead instruments to sit upon.
  • The tamb hits on the end of every measure.
  • A very short drum fill introduces the second half of the Outro and the snare reverts back to hitting on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure, while the kick gets just a bit more active (when they played it live on SNL a few weeks back, the kick was hitting on every beat AGAIN giving the track a more dynamic ending).
  • The song ends with three guitar chord strums in different octaves panned in stereo (left channel is a lower octave than the right channel), with a tone heavily wetted with flange and long tremolo effects. The first and third guitar strums are accented with a cymbal hit, while the second strum is accented with the snare. Note that an open hi-hat keeps an active pattern in-between the strums and that the song ends on the first beat of the next logical measure. So, if you start counting 1-2-3-4 (in tempo) when the strums start, the last strum will be on 1 of the next measure.
Here again, is Shawn Parrotte teaching you how to play this jam. Questions or comments? Hit me up. ~ AE|Beats
 

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