The Black Keys: “Attack & Release”

Strange times, indeed; when the Black Keys first entered the scene with The Big Come Up just a few years ago, their traditionalism, their rigid sense of minimalism and their dogged adherence to their musical roots, seemed so immutable that even Jack White seemed liberal by comparison. And yet, here they are in 2008, doing the last thing any of us thought they would do after the ragged simplicity and lived-in grit of Rubber Factory— collaborating with current in-producer Danger Mouse, a man whose reputation is staked not in blues-rock traditionalism, but in hip-hop knob-twisting and evocative studio craft as one half of Gnarls Barkley.

But really, Attack and Release is the most exhilarating and rewarding kind of collaboration– one so daring that it sounds downright bewildering on paper, but so natural that, once the end results are heard, it’s easy to wonder why nobody thought of it sooner. In the press material accompanying the album, Danger Mouse notes that he’s always been a fan of the blues and of riff-heavy classic rock, and for their part, the Keys have never shown anything other than good taste and sound judgement; Mouse understands what the Keys are all about, and the Keys are open to what he has to offer them. The result is a bigger, bolder, more colorful Black Keys album than we’ve ever heard before, but, in spirit, it’s every bit as much a Black Keys album as Magic Potion was.

Some will accuse this album of marking a shift in focus from song to sound, pointing to the increased focus in texture and mood on Magic Potion as a precursor to the more radical changes ushered in by Danger Mouse, but that’s not really true, or at least not very precise. For one thing, part of the Black Keys’ gift has always been their understanding that the blues live and die by how well they are recorded, and the wild success of Rubber Factory was as much due to the gritty authenticity and unadorned simplicity of the recording itself as it was the high-grade songwriting. And that hasn’t changed; Danger Mouse knows that a blues song will only work if its gut-level emotion and its raw, muscular power are preserved, and so, while he embellishes nearly every song here with production flourishes that’ve never made it on to a Black Keys album before, it’s never atmosphere or ornamentation just for the heck of it. It’s always in service of the song.

And the songs are some of the tightest, most memorable that Dan Auerbach has ever written. The album was initially intended to be a collaboration with the late Ike Turner, and several tracks are holdovers from that unfinished project– which means that the songs were meant to showcase the range and power of a great vocalist. And while Auerbach isn’t the same kind of vocalist that Turner was, he has the strut, the swagger, the weight of experience in his vocals that could only belong to a born bluesman. He and drummer Patrick Carney move these songs out of vocal-showcase territory into real band efforts, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this is the most emotionally varied and rich set of songs they’ve ever recorded, steeped in the language of the blues without losing their heart or their sense of humor.

It adds up to an album that expands and enriches the sonic palette of the Keys far beyond the basic guitar-drums recipe of their older albums without sacrificing the spirit or the authenticity that has always set them apart. There are a couple of more traditional Black Keys numbers here that deserve their place alongside the band’s very best work; Auerbach has never allowed himself to snarl with as much nastiness or to roll off so many messy classic-rock riffs as he does on “I Got Mine,” and “Remember When (Side B)” is a quick clap of thunder that enlivens the record’s second half.

But the best songs are the ones that find Auerback and Carney reaching out and broadening their sound, under the watchful eye of Danger Mouse. At its best, Attack and Release finds the Keys connecting their blues-rock sound to other genres, bridging gaps and blurring stylistic dividing lines; just witness how the woodwind-styled synths and steady beat link “Same Old Thing” to underground hip-hop. Likewise, Mouse’s embellishments serve not to distract from the emotional heft of Auerbach’s rich blues songs, but, rather, to enrich and enliven them, to underscore what’s always been great about them; listen to how the spooky marimbas add drama and fire to the scorching blues number “Lies,” how the banjo, slide guitar and ghostly vocal backdrops in “Psychotic Girl” draw a line from old-school blues to latter-day Tom Waits, or how a dash of piano lends extra zip to the rock-and-rave first single, “Strange Times.”

The album is concise and song-oriented, and it packs the kind of hard-hitting firepower that this kind of classically-inclined rock album should have, but it also works well as a piece. The passage of time is the thematic line that runs through the album, beginning with the wistfulness of the opening song, “All You Ever Wanted,” running through the indignant bewilderment of “Strange Times” and climaxing in the barn-burning power and sinister dread of the apocalyptic closing ballad, “Things Ain’s Like They Used to Be.” And because the band and the producer are so tightly in sync with one another, the production flourishes aren’t distractions from the songs, but details that add nuance and depth to the recordings, making it an album that opens itself up to repeated listening.

Of course, some fans will wish the band had struck to the same old thing, and indeed, it must be said that the album may not match the sheer brute force of Rubber Factory, which might still be their masterpiece. But the Keys are to be commended for taking their art to the next level, broadening their sound and flexing their creative muscles without compromising the spirit that made them so refreshing in the first place. Things ain’t like they used to be, but, in the case of the Black Keys, that’s not a problem in the least.

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