Music Review: The Black Keys' Attack & Release

by Stephen Tringali

When the internet first buzzed over the revelation that Danger Mouse (real name: Brian Burton) would be producing the latest effort from blues rock duo The Black Keys, a collective sigh of online confusion could be felt. What in the world might this new album sound like? I personally imagined a meeting between the cut and paste beats and samples of Gnarls Barkley (a group that Danger Mouse co-heads with rapper and soul singer Cee-Lo) and a zombified Son House ripping it up on a rusty Les Paul.

But, honestly — listeners probably expected to hear an album’s worth of “Devil’s Haircut,” the popular opening track to Beck’s Odelay, which mixes a sample from the garage rock staple “I Can Only Give You Everything” and some hot hip-hop beats.

Good news Black Keys lovers: neither of these scenarios manifest themselves on the newest release from these Akron, Ohio-based blues rockers, which is entitled Attack & Release. In fact, Danger Mouse’s role is essentially confined to that of his role on The Good, The Bad, & The Queen release — only it seems that his efforts here are more effective. Danger Mouse never interferes with the musicians’ intents or image; he only improves upon what they’ve already constructed.

For example, the most notable change to The Black Keys setup comes in the form of additional instrumentation. “Lies” includes subtle banjo plucking. “Same Old Thing” features lithe flute accompaniment. And “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” incorporates backing vocals from 18-year-old bluegrass and country singer Jessica Lea Mayfield.

Danger Mouse’s production standpoint may seem odd, especially considering that The Black Keys have benefited so much from their stripped down aesthetic. The new sound is, of course, a bigger, broader one. But rather than breakdown under the weight of outside opinion, the Keys thrive with their new producer. Not since Rubber Factory, the band’s 2004 release, have they crafted a record this dynamic or this wholly satisfying.

Attack & Release even begins like Rubber Factory — with a quiet, acoustic track that eases listeners into what will surely be a thoroughly rockin’ album. Once that song closes, Attack & Release plows into heavy blues rock territory with “I Got Mine” and “Strange Times,” then shifts down a few notches with “Psychotic Girl” only to unleash one of the Keys’ hardest hitting rockers, “Remember When B,” two songs later.

Attack & Release plays this see-saw game for all of its 40-minute running time, maintaining listener interest rather than dulling it with the bludgeoning, one-hard-blues-rocker-after-another formula heard on previous Keys releases like Thickfreakness and Magic Potion. Though Attack & Release may not provide the immediate satisfaction that those releases do, it may prove to be The Black Keys’ magnum opus — or, at the very least, one of the best albums of this year.

(Photo of The Black Keys performing at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2007 used with a GNU Free Documentation License. The Black Keys continue their world tour with an appearance tonight, April 1, in Los Angeles. To see The Black Keys' video for "Strange Times" from Attack & Release, please check below.)

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