After four very enjoyable albums that had the same nasty ambience, the Black Keys (Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals, Patrick Carney on drums) decided it was time to alter their modus operandi. They still wanted to retain that “blues-garage-rock” sound, but wanted to throw in a few curveballs that would strengthen their repertoire as more than just pitching high, hard heat. (Sorry for the baseball parlance, but the season is upon us.) And they have the late Ike Turner to thank for what became their latest release, Attack & Release.
From the rubber factories, basements and garages of the duo’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys have slowly and steadily risen in popularity. They are so beloved by one Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead) that he asked the dynamic duo to open some shows for the lads of Oxford during their 2005 tour. (Believe me, it was one hell of a juxtaposition to go from the Keys to the ‘Head.) A quick glance at the band’s website theblackkeys.com shows that their upcoming tour has a lot of sellouts, especially in the western half of the U.S.
What makes the Black Keys so endearing? It starts with two very talented musicians. Auerbach’s guitar work is simply magnificent, once you realize he’s playing both the low-end rhythm and the lead at the same time on the same guitar. His vocals have the perfect blues “hurt”. Carney keeps the Keys’ engine chugging along. I’ve said this many times before: if you watch him live on stage, his drumming style reminds one of Animal, the crazed drummer from the Muppets TV show, legs and arms akimbo. Carney’s style may be unique, but the heaviness and precision he adds to each song is as important as Auerbach’s contributions.
So how does Ike Turner come into play? It seems that hip-hop producer Danger Mouse, a fan of the Keys, approached the duo and asked if they would write some songs for an album he was going to produce for Turner. Auerbach and Carney obliged, but as the process was rolling along, Turner died of a heart attack. Auerbach and Carney took another look at what they had written, and realized that the songs were definitely in the “Black Keys style”, so they decided to use that material for their own release. But both felt the need to expand their sound, so they asked the Mouse if he would produce the disc. That led Danger Mouse to Cleveland, and in turn, led to the 11 songs that comprise Attack & Release.
It doesn’t take long to see this is an atypical Black Keys album. The opening track, “All I Ever Wanted”, is the breaking ball in the dirt when you were expecting a fastball. First, the song is slow and gentle in its demeanor. And then, you hear—wait for it—an acoustic guitar. The drums start off muted, and the only electric guitar is echoing in the background. And then, out of nowhere, comes—wait for it again—an organ coda to close the song out. Not only did the boys go out of their comfort zone in terms of using an outside producer, a “real” recording studio, guest musicians (Marc Ribot and Ralph Carney, both integral to Tom Waits…and Carney just happens to be Patrick’s uncle), and odd instruments not normally heard on a Black Keys album, but they even went outside their blues-garage-rock umbrella.
Some of the songs (“Remember When – Side A”, “So He Won’t Break”) have the vibe of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Want some country influence? The closing track, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, replete with pedal steel and backing vocals from Jessica Lea Mayfield, an 18-year-old bluegrass and country singer, fits the bill nicely, as does “All I Ever Wanted”. Want to see what’s in the old garage? Listen to “I Got Mine” and “Remember When – Side B”.
The instrumental additions are mind-blowing. Aside from the aforementioned acoustic guitar and organ, you can pick up a banjo coda opening “Psychotic Girl”. Bass guitar permeates a few tracks, and is at the forefront of “Same Old Thing”; it’s sort of like they want you to be aware there’s a bass there, and it’s in your face. This is, of course, after the Jethro Tull-style intro to the song (translation: a flute!). A constant sonar ping—one you hear underwater—runs through “Oceans and Streams” (how convenient!). A vibraphone can be heard in the background of “So He Won’t Break”.
With Danger Mouse producing this album, all these sounds have purpose. Nothing is superfluous, and after a few listens, you’ll notice they do not detract from the song, but rather add a new dimension. Of course, there are bits of programmed drums and handclaps, putting a little urban in the mix. This is not the first time the Keys have had handclaps in a song, though. Go back to “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” from Rubber Factory for the first time handclaps appeared in a Black Keys song.
Anyone who has heard and enjoyed previous Black Keys releases will be in for a shock the first time they hear Attack & Release. In fact, it’ll likely be the first few times you hear this that you’ll just shake your head in amazement. But after allowing the shock to wear off after one or two full listens, and considering how they made all the extra instrumentation part of their sound, you’ll see that the core of each song is still purely Auerbach’s guitar and voice, and Carney’s drums. Most of the extras are window dressing. Surprisingly, the overall sound is the cleanest it’s been for a Black Keys album. Every instrument comes through crisp, clear, and vibrant.
Attack & Release is the sound of Auerbach and Carney doing some slight tweaking… alright, a nearly complete overhaul of their musical philosophy. They still rely on drums and guitar as their mainstays to each song. The wonderful surprise about all the extra instrumentation is that it enhances what they normally do. Credit Danger Mouse for walking a tightrope between doing just enough and doing too much. This probably isn’t an album that you’ll love right off the bat if you’re a fan of the Black Keys. But after a few spins, it starts to take root in your musical soil, and then grows huge. For the two Akronites, Attack & Release is a musical grand slam, and their career is one long winning streak.