As endearing the gritty sounds borne from the mangy, bedraggled environs occupied by the aggressive blues duo The Black Keys have been, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have decided to go house hunting.
With king collaborator Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton as their realtor, and the infamous, iconic Ike Turner initially serving as their co-signer, the Akron, Ohio assemblage look to give their sound some room to stretch its legs. The move has done wonders, as Attack and Release, which marries Burton’s production ingenuity with Carney and Auerbach’s intense rock prowess, harbours one of the finest collection of tracks that will be released this year.
Although originally slated as a cooperative effort between the Midwest duo and Turner (with Burton tasking Auerbach and Carney with writing responsibilities), Attack and Release was (and continued to be after Turner’s passing) a Black Keys record.
Rough blues rock abounds, with Carney (the talented foil of Meg White, the one-dimensional percussionist of fellow, and similar, Great Lakes region rock outfit The White Stripes) providing solid rhythm and Auerbach, whose chops and knack for prolific writing more closely resembles those of blues legend Robert Johnson than his looks would let on (his current appearance, by the way, puts the real estate extended metaphor to shame, as the front man looks rather homeless) once again making successful use of his profound instrumental and lyrical abilities.
However, it’s the new and interesting touches supplied by Burton (who, speaking of Johnson and given the virtuosic engineer’s ever-expanding resume, makes one wonder if the price for his mixing board were his everlasting soul) that helps take The Black Keys’s art to a new level.
While most of Attack and Release is a cooperative effort, the dichotomy between producer and artist in terms of musical perspective is especially evident on the two versions of Remember When. On the gentler Side A, Auerbach and company glide on the new porch swing, sipping a whiskey sour as Burton provides cool, dreamy texture that envelopes the heartsick recollection of a lost love. The same can’t be said for Side B, though, as the blues brothers switch to straight whiskey and some violent punk blues to release the angst the memory undoubtedly fostered.
Other tracks show The Black Keys, who very much took the notion of less is more to heart on their four previous albums, to be a band intent on tweaking not just the recording quality, but also the constituents of the sound being captured.
Prior to the dramatic finale of the album-opener All You Ever Wanted, vacuum tube amp echoes are dripped onto mellow, reverberated electric and acoustic guitar lines, which establish a deceptively calm ambience that pulls in the listener without using sheer force. Meanwhile, touches of sonar appropriately help establish the beat of the soulful Oceans and Streams.
Haunting vocals, reminiscent of Burton’s work with Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz, spice up the bridge and chorus of I Got Mine and Strange Times, respectively. Throw in the banjo intro of Psychotic Girl; the guitar and flute contributions from Marc Ribot and Pat’s uncle Ralph, respectively, both formerly in cahoots with Tom Waits; as well as the lilting vocals of bluegrass crooner Jessica Lea Mayfield (who sings backup on the phenomenal album closer Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be), and the result is the most eclectic and dynamic release by Auerbach and Carney to date.
It’s very much a buyer’s market in Ohio these days, and The Black Keys have certainly taken advantage of the situation with their latest effort. The new digs represent a clear departure from the minimalism that was elemental in their earlier work (the most recent example of which being their excellent debut Magic Potion).
Attack and Release represents the successful transition of a promising band from relatively obscure, intimately rough beginnings to the more illustrious, but potentially more sterile, realm of high fidelity.
Often, such a change can have diminishing returns on an artist’s sound, as the music simply can’t keep up with the production value. Perhaps it’s the nature of the blues genre, though, or simply the remarkable talents of The Black Keys and Burton, that allows the fullness and density of the music on the new album to be such a triumph. Whatever the reason, the final product is an astounding achievement in modern rock – one that truly feels like home sweet home.