It’s easy to be dismissive and simply compare Black Keys to The White Stripes. The low-fi arrangements, the sound of the guitar, the chunkiness of the music, and the distorted vocals all weigh against to Jack and Meg somewhat. The comparisons might be flattering, but they aren’t entirely fair as Black Keys surpass The White Stripes in just about every way.
The debut from Black Keys blew me away back in 2002. The Big Come Up was a stout and often nasty amalgamation of blues, funk, Southern rock, and soul. While many minimalistic duos have a low key sound, Black Keys do not. The Big Come Up asserted that and, since then, I’ve been a big fan. Thickfreakness, with the brilliant “Set You Free,” dropped in 2003 and was in fact recorded in just 14 hours in the basement of drummer Patrick Carney’s basement.
After Thickfreakness came 2004’s Rubber Factory and 2006’s Magic Potion, both of which found significant play over at Richardson Ranch. The latter was released on the band’s new label, Nonesuch Records. After Magic Potion, word came out that Black Keys were planning on collaborating on an album with Ike Turner of all people. Super-producer Danger Mouse, who brought us Gnarls Barkley’s dazzling St. Elsewhere, was set to produce. Unfortunately, Turner died in December of 2007 and the project was off.
With Danger Mouse still on board with Black Keys, their new album would be the band’s first to be put together and produced in an actual studio. Attack and Release, set for release on April 1st, 2008, is another incredible collection of blues, funk, Southern rock, and soul. The album feels a little bit slicker than previous releases, but the distortion and thick guitar still permeates the record.
For those who may be put off by the addition of Danger Mouse to a genre with which he may seem an improbable collaborator, it should be noted that it is a credit to his skill as a producer that he stays out of the way of the jams and adds his stroke in moderation to the music. Instead of being crushing on Attack and Release, Danger Mouse is smooth and adds some stunning touches.
The pacing of the record is magnificent, moving from slow burn to fatally swift riffs and hard rock in no time. Beginning with an almost rural opener, “All You Ever Wanted,” Black Keys show their scope right out of the rusty gate. The song’s gospel feel lends itself agreeably to the swing of the music, creating a track that is both earthly and elevating.
Attack and Release contains barn-burning riffs, like the killer one on “I Got Mine” and the sinful cleverness of “Strange Times,” and smooth Southern rock grooves (“Oceans and Streams”). Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach sounds immaculate on the entire record, his vocals distorted to perfect measure and slapped together by Danger Mouse.
“Same Old Thing” features a hell of a groove and a flute. Ralph Carney, uncle of drummer Patrick, has played most notably with Tom Waits and is a collector of strange and obscure instruments. Ralph pops up frequently on Attack and Release and always adds a nice touch. His clarinet on “Remember When” is marvelous.
Auerbach probably never sounds better than on the album’s concluding duet, “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.” Singing with 18-year-old bluegrass singer Jessica Lea Mayfield, Auerbach delivers poignancy and sentiment with his modest range and the song’s natural bend. It’s the most beautiful piece on Attack and Release and closes off an album that is at times muddy and unrefined and, at other times, really hygienic and affecting.
Attack and Release delves deep into Southern rock, blues, and hard rock to create a sound with grain and power that exceeds the work of most other minimalist duos in music today. Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s sturdy rhythm, as well as the collection of guests and the almighty Danger Mouse, help make Attack and Release one of the better albums of the year thus far.