The fact that Danger Mouse – the ubiquitous producer half of Gnarls Barkley fame – mans the controls for The Black Keys’s recent album, Attack and Release, is not a renunciation of the group’s lo-fi history. Earlier albums like Thickfreakness and Magic Potion reveled in their washer-room acoustics, pure overdrive filling stone sinks and bouncing off concrete walls. The Akron-based duo’s brand of basement blues isn’t lost in the ribbon mics and slick levels. Rather, Danger Mouse lets the band be itself, and his additions are tactful supplements to an already great sound.
That a producer now known for the speaker-busting single “Crazy” – as well as insane dress codes while on tour – was paired with a modern blues duo is strange enough. That Danger Mouse initially conceived of an album on which The Black Keys would back-up none other than Ike Turner is even stranger. Sadly, Ike Turner’s passing in December put an end to that potential collaboration.
Luckily, the remaining parties forged on, and Attack and Release is a successful partnership. Dan Auerbach’s guitar is as focused as ever. His looping riffs are spot-on in “Same Old Thing” and a second take of “Remember When.” Their previous album, Rubber Factory, just can’t keep up with this.
But the first thing that pops out on a well-produced album is the drum tracks. Pat Carney has never sounded so tight, and that’s not to say he wasn’t tight before – he was. His skin work has always been a great foil to Auerbach: massive, heady beats and loose fills. But a lo-fi record is most recognizable from the drums. Auerbach pounds heaven and earth into his drums all over Thick Freakness and Chulahoma (the tribute to the bluesman Junior Kimbrough and the group’s best album) because the subtleties of quieter drumming would have been lost in the mix. Better micing gives Carney a fuller range, his drumming still massive but measured on a different scale.
On Magic Potion, Attack and Release’s predecessor, the melodies and lyrics are glummer and the high points rounded off. Even though the opening lyrics on Attack and Release are “Ain’t it just like dying / Except you can still feel the shame,” the comfortable acoustic guitar and plodding beat keep the song above water. When the organ and overdriven guitars crash into the outtro, the track is redeemed. “I Got Mine” follows close behind and burns straight through two short of straight blues-rock that would probably make ZZ Top smile.
Where’s Danger Mouse? It’s hard to say what he specifically added to the tracks themselves. In terms of “flourishes,” there are the aforementioned organ, the breathless flute on “Same Old Thing” and the (perfect) female vocal doubling Auerbach on “Oceans and Streams.” It all fits in perfectly, and regardless of where the various departures from The Black Keys’ “sound” came from, the album is the most professional, fullest album they’ve made.
Attack and Release finds the Keys more comfortable in their own skin. The bit of banjo and piano on “Psychotic Girl” doesn’t sound out of place even though the Keys rarely use anything outside of a guitar and a drum set – they sound right. And hopefully they hold on to their sporadic use of backing vocals, a new addition for the album, in future work. Carney’s lyrics, the source of the group’s only consistent mediocrity, are more consistent (especially on the soulful “So He Won’t Break”), and his voice is nicely unadorned. The band still hits it, and hits it hard. “I Got Mine” ends with the declaration, “Rock and roll hustle / All the time / And right now baby / I got mine.”
If they dropped it on Magic Potion, The Black Keys picked it back up on Attack and Release. It’s their record, not Danger Mouse’s. Here’s to odd couples and the fruits of their unexpected endeavors.
The Black Keys
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Attack and Release