Smile Politely

Album Review: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Before Attack and Release, The Black Keys had never recorded an album outside of their Akron, Ohio, basement. They had never worked with a producer and had always recorded and mixed all of their own records. All of this is simply the beginning of a musical story that boasts the stuff of musical lore. The story goes like this: Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) called Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (a.k.a. The Black Keys) to ask if they want to write and record some songs for the forthcoming Danger Mouse-produced record by soul/r&b pioneer Ike Turner. Unfortunately, Turner passed away in December and the record — as of now — seems as if it was not far enough along to complete in any way, shape, or form. For The Black Keys, though, recording with Burton was something of a watershed moment and they immediately asked him if he would produce their next record. Attack and Release is the result.

It is instantly clear that there is more atmosphere, more space, on this record than there ever has been on a Black Keys record. “All You Ever Wanted” opens the record, and at first it doesn’t sound like arsenal that has been The Black Keys of the past. The song echoes and swings like classic soul. But then you realize it’s there: Auerbach’s earnest vocals, the (eventually) blistering guitars, the drumming that puts this band ahead of all of the other bluesy garage throwbacks. All of The Black Keys’s past abounds, and it’s peppered with a psychedelic edge, partly due to Burton’s melodic hip-hop sensibilities that allow for layers in a way that’s new for the band and the resulting newfound expansiveness. Of note are the side-by-side takes of “Remember When,” the appearance of which recalls Dylan’s Planet Waves and its paired versions of “Forever Young.” “Remember When (Side A)” is pensive and soulful, eerie and quiet and anything but spare. When its partner, “Remember When (Side B)” kicks in it’s hard to tell that it is, in fact, the same song you just heard; the pensiveness is replaced by ravenous guitars, the quiet by distortion. It’s from this balance that the album appears to get its namesake — the strength of attack and the calm of release.

It’s clear that, for the better, Danger Mouse’s hand is anything but subtle here. The organ swells are giant, and the rhythmic synth that drives a number of tracks is notable as well. Most importantly, this collaboration seems to have drawn The Black Keys out of their comfort zones a bit, the same way Sleater-Kinney found Dave Fridmann pulling them into a more atmospheric, exploratory abyss on their final record The Woods. This isn’t to say that Black Keys fans won’t like the record; on the contrary, they’ll find new touches for which to love the band. This change is more important to those who are on the fence — those who like the band but have written them off as a group who makes the same record over and over: These fence-dwellers will find The Black Keys extremely flattering in this new light.

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