The Black Keys – Attack & Release

Attack & Release (2008)

B+

1. All You Ever Wanted 2. I Got Mine 3. Strange Times 4. Psychotic Girl 5. Lies 6. Remember When (Side A) 7. Remember When (Side B) 8. Same Old Thing 9. So He Won’t Break 10. Oceans & Streams 11. Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be

 

The Keys retreat to a cushy actual recording studio with Danger Mouse and resultantly turn in an album that blatantly marks the beginning of a second era for the band. A quirky soul-inflected pop record certainly didn’t appear to be on these guys’ agenda before now, but when it arrived it certainly destroyed any ambiguity about whether or not they wanted to remain basement-dwellers forever. Hint: they didn’t. It smells down there.

Not that they didn’t need lightning to strike to finally take that leap. Attack & Release actually began life as an attempted left-field collaboration with an aged Ike Turner with Danger Mouse at the helm, but after Fightin’ Ike’s death early on in the sessions, the remaining players decided to carry on and turn the material into a Black Keys album. Fortunately, Mr. Mouse turned out to be a natural fit. See, Dan and Pat have always secretly been big hip-hop fans, so they were probably pretty psyched to see how far they could stray from the economical and stylistic box they had previously toiled in with the Gnarls Barkley/Grey Album guy in the producer’s chair. This eagerness unsurprisingly results in a bit of a “let’s see what happens when we do this!” atmosphere, and this sure as hell ain’t no guitar/drums only schtick anymore – banjos, bass and keyboards galore! I’d certainly be excited too if after 6 years I finally had more than 8 tracks to play with, and I wasn’t even using more than half of those 8 in the first place. But Dan and Pat clearly aren’t entirely comfortable in their new skin yet, and it doesn’t always sound like they’ve figured out how to fully integrate all these new elements into their songs yet. Take “Remember When,” presented here in two versions (labeled “Side A” and “Side B” in an attempt to simulate the bygone days of vinyl album side congruity), the second of which is a scalding hot two-minute rocker that they decided to re-do as boring ass spacey stoner slop for no other reason than to say, “Look everybody! We’re using keyboards now!” Never mind that the two versions are sequenced directly after one another on your CD/pirated MP3 playlist, which serves to further emphasize the annoyingly sharp contrast between them. It’s the exact same snot-nosed shit that Dylan pulled on Planet Waves, except at least in that case the goof version of “Forever Young” was a 2-minute country rock hoedown thing that I can fully endorse. Here it’s just dumb.

There aren’t any other abuses of technology, but plenty of unexpected non-rockist coloring. Omnipresent session guitarist Marc Ribot plays on a bunch of this (yup, there’s more than two guys playing on this thing… a fact that may cause some to automatically accuse the offenders in federal court of the horrible crime of selling out, but I could give a shit), but overall there’s much less guitar, making Attack by far their least aggressive album, but also their most varied in timbre. Like on “Same Old Thing,” otherwise a Rubber Factory-style mid-tempo rocker, where the guitar is pushed back in the mix to make room for some Ron Burgundy-esque jazz flute (perhaps to defy the song title, eh?). Or the lead single “Strange Times,” where Danger Mouse really lets loose with his chanting zombie backing vocal choir and squeaking synth overdubs. Kinda sounds like Gnarls Barkley, to be honest, but it’s the only time on the album where the producer’s invisible hand at all outshines Dan and Pat’s established personalities… though they get their licks in with that neat drum intro and cool dissonant guitar riff. But to be honest, most of these flourishes sound a tad tacked on rather than organic, which is what makes “Psychotic Girl” a standout. Even though it’s arguably the most instrumentally out there song on the album, with its banjo, bass, echoey keyboard line and very little guitar, for whatever reason, the song sounds like it was meant to be that way, whereas some tunes here sound like standard Black Keys guitar songs that they added strange instruments to for kicks. So, palette expanded, check… though it’s still cool when Dan says “fuck it” and outdoes pretty much all of Magic Potion in the riff rawk department with “I Got Mine” (in spite off the fact that the riff is a total lift of “Manic Depression,” which I didn’t realize until just now because I’m an idiot). That’s a song that seems to me to be designed for Ike Turner, and had he been the one to sing it, Dan would’ve have every reason to be proud.

And it must be said: though I’ve been hyping the whole “experimental” angle for the last three paragraphs, the biggest revelation on Attack is that Dan is now writing songs instead of riffs. Which means the success of these tunes, immeasurably more so than in the past, relies heavily on Dan’s singing and melodies. And I’ll be gosh darned if he doesn’t deliver with a gold star and a slap on the back. Some of this stuff simply wouldn’t work it all if he was still growling and mumbling, so his vocal work here is a major development for the band. I mean, Kelly Clarkson covered “Lies,” so you know it’s either the next “Since U Been Gone” or a singer’s song, and Dan delivers the goods. He gets some help from his protégé, then 17-year old chick-with-an-acoustic-guitar singer songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield, on the closing “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be,” which nicks the melody of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” but is probably the best song on the album. Maybe because the song is lyrically almost a Ray Davies-esque nostalgic plea for a simpler time, instead of being about wanting to fuck Yoko. But take it as a rallying cry – the Black Keys that used to be are gone, but the new Black Keys are out to prove that different doesn’t mean bad.



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