Written by Sombra Blanca
Attack & Release is the fifth full-length album from Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, a.k.a. The Black Keys. But it’s the first time the Akron, Ohio-based duo brought in production help from the outside, joining forces with the highly qualified (if somewhat unlikely choice of) Danger Mouse.
The album’s roots began as a project between the three and the late Ike Turner. Due to Turner’s death in December, the collaboration never reached fruition. Rather than let the songs pass away along with Turner, the Keys and Danger Mouse stuck with it and we are given an album that at points is slow, moody and spooky, other times straight ahead rock, but fused together with a base of blues ever-present in The Black Keys’ music.
The album heads north from the anchor of Mississippi sound heard in the duo’s first four albums, The Big Come Up, Thickfreakness, The Rubber Factory and Magic Potion, with the second and third aptly coming through the Oxford, Miss. record label Fat Possum. The new album heads north, that is, until we reach Memphis.
I’m not sure if all 11 of A&R’s songs were meant for the Turner collaboration. But with “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans & Streams,” we have the two songs tied closest to the Memphis sound. Layering organs underneath Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drums, both songs call to mind the quintessential B.B. King tune, “The Thrill is Gone.” Pining for the days he used to “dream of oceans and streams,” Auerbach actually finishes that song’s chorus with the words “those days are gone.”
The nods to Beale Street, similar to the album’s other songs, are given some current touches by Danger Mouse, with the unexpected tinkle of a xylophone in “Break” and hand claps in “Oceans.” And that’s where his complimentary production is most felt. The Keys’ previous albums channeled the blues through Carney’s self-described “medium fidelity” production methods, giving the tunes a raw, fuzzy feel that others have also lumped in with garage rock. The sound is still there in parts, but the Mouse rounds it out with sonic additions seldom, if ever, heard in The Keys’ music before. The aforementioned handclaps and use of a flute on “Same Old Thing,” are but a couple of examples.
While Danger had a heavy hand in creating Gorillaz’ Demon Days, along with the backdrop for MF Doom’s lyricism on “DangerDoom” and Cee-Lo’s vocals with Gnarls Barkley, his touch on Attack & Release more closely resembles his work on The Good, The Bad & The Queen, where the bells and whistles (or blips and bleeps) are mostly lacking and the quartet come through with an album, as fellow Snob Tio Esqueleto once remarked to me, “so British your teeth hurt just listening to it.”
We are treated to both past and the present in the album’s second track “I Got Mine.” Starting off with the classic Keys sound heard in Magic Potion’s “Give Your Heart Away” — to name one tune out of most — “I Got Mine” moves from heavier guitar and drums and launches into an abyss of guitars run backward and a moaning chorus reminiscent of Demon Days’ “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head.”
Background vocals are another accompaniment never heard before in the Keys’ music, but they play a big role this time around. Auerbach even stretches his own voice, hitting higher, emotion-filled notes still within his range and still with the soulful rasp and gravel we’ve heard from him before.
Continuing with the new-yet-still-old sounds brought to the board by DM, “Psychotic Girl” uses both banjo and piano, rooting the song in the south alongside slide guitar and chorus. Even the use of organs and keyboards are rare, as on the duo’s 2006 six-song EP, “Chulahoma,” covering the music of Junior Kimbrough.
Tickling of the keys provides harmonic counterpoints to Auerbach’s vocals and guitar, and adds to Carney’s rhythm, on songs like “Strange Times,” the album’s first single, and the slower “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.” But the effect on “Remember When (Side A)” is otherworldly. Using Casio-esque beats to accompany Carney, DM adds echoes and reverb, a wompish-sounding keyboard and a rumored Theremin to surround more slide guitar and stretched-out vocals.
Immediately following is “Remember When (Side B),” harkening the days of 45-rpm records, including those of Ike Turner, when a full track was split into two sides as Parts 1 and 2. Yet if “Side A” aligns itself closer to roots music, “Side B” is stripped down to guitar and drums and is pure rock ‘n roll. I don’t know if it was on purpose, but “Side B” reminded me of something out of The Stooges catalogue; not entirely a stretch, considering that The Keys covered “No Fun” on their first EP, “The Moan.”
The album ends with the above mentioned “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” and it seems appropriate, given that it’s not the medium-fi, gutter blues-rock that got me hooked on The Keys, at least not 100 percent. Nor is it an entirely new direction for the duo, abandoning everything that’s come before. So I’m curious to see how working with DM might influence future albums if Auerbach and Carney go back into their self-imposed production shell.
But for now, A&R is just a really nice mix of slow and fast, down-home and out-of-this-world, raw and polished, that it’s one of those easy to let spin from start to finish.