Load up your iPod with Black Keys songs, shut your eyes and press play, and you’d never guess you were listening to a couple of twentysomething white dudes from the home of the Goodyear blimp - that’s Akron, Ohio, for you Uniroyal loyalists. You’re hearing a blues racket that could easily be confused for the vinyl snap-crackle-poppin’ jangle of a mid-century Mississippi field recording.
But the evidence is right in your ears, an irresistibly tangy combo of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s wholly unexpected vocals (at least coming out of the mouth of a guy who looks like your typical indie hipster) and Patrick Carney’s drum work.
Attack & Release
(Nonesuch; US: 1 Apr 2008; UK: 31 Mar 2008)
The Black Keys have been doing their blues-rock thing since they were teens, finally putting out their first album, “The Big Come Up,” in 2002. Largely sticking to that gritty, old-school approach, the duo has been building momentum with audiences and critics ever since. That’s why the sonic chances the band took on the just-issued “Attack & Release” - and the left-of-field collaborator they chose to work with - have caused such a buzz.
While the Keys’ new disc is much more robust when it comes to instrumentation and studio trickery, the live show remains just Auerbach and Carney - their guitar, drums and voices.
“Attack & Release,” the band’s fifth full-length disc, marks a welcome evolution in sound, being the first time they used an outside producer. And they didn’t choose just any old soundboard hack. They went with maestro Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), who helmed the Jay-Z-versus-Beatles mashup epic “The Grey Album,” but is probably best-known as one half of soul-pop chart-toppers Gnarls Barkley.
A sonic sculptor of hip-hop, old-school soul and all sorts of production wizardry, Danger Mouse is not exactly thought of as having a down-‘n’-dirty blues sensibility. So how did these unlikely musical minds find their way to each other?
It started with an Ike Turner tribute that Danger Mouse was producing. He wanted the Black Keys to contribute.
“We said `Yes, let’s do it.’ So we started working on it, sending a bunch of songs, and Ike was putting his vocals and guitar on top of it in L.A. with Brian,” says Auerbach. “We worked on that for just over two months and realized it was going to take a long time. We let them know we needed to take a break, put the Ike thing on the back burner because we really needed to make a new record. And he said cool, he totally understood - but then he expressed interest in wanting to produce our record if we wanted him to.”
It made Carney and Auerbach a little nervous since they’d always been rather insular in their composition, but given Danger Mouse’s track record and their growing relationship with him, they decided to go for it. “We never had a producer before, but since we’d been working with him for two months on the Ike thing we got to know him. So we just said, `Yeah, let’s do it.’ “
What happened wasn’t the normal working relationship between a superproducer and an established group looking for a new direction. Danger Mouse encouraged the Keys to keep doing their thing, only better, thicker, more elaborate. More instruments, more tracks, maybe a teensy bit less analog whine. What resulted was a record that remains true to the stripped-down, grinding-gears style of blues that the Black Keys have been doing for years, but with added layers of intrigue and new effects to discover on repeat listens.
“Brian was just like another musician. He wasn’t bossy or overpowering. He told me with my vocals that he liked the way I sing and said whether or not I get a take it’s really going to be up to me. He didn’t really want to have any say in it. He’s sort of got this hands-off approach. He’ll step in when he thinks he needs to, and it was cool to have someone else there to keep us focused,” says Auerbach.
“When you’re in the studio and you’re really concentrating and you’re spending day after day after day there you can sometimes get into a rut mentally. That’s when I think a producer really comes into play.”
The Black Keys found themselves in just such a rut with the track “Psychotic Girl,” a song with a great sliding, bassy loop that moves around Carney’s skins and Auerbach’s crumbling asphalt vocals with a snaky malevolence. “We’d had about five different versions of that song and he really loved the song, but we decided to just do something different. He made a little loop, just to really give us a tempo. And I thought that turned out great,” says Auerbach. “Right after he did that it just sort of opened the floodgates, the song was finished just a couple hours later.”
The Black Keys’ crank-it-out ethos and big song catalog is quite a treat in an industry where bands frequently wait three or four years between albums. Whether they’ll work with an outside producer again remains to be seen, but the studio is already calling them again. With “Attack & Release” now on shelves - the fifth disc in seven years - Auerbach says that he and Carney’s notebooks are already brimming with new material and they’re just about ready to cut another record. What it will sound like, or who they’ll work with remains to be seen, but the output is something they view as a necessary part of their career.
“Bands used to put out two records a year, you know? We’re already planning on our next record. It’s what we do. We love it. It’s fun for us to get in a studio and record. It’s what we live for.”