The Black Keys – Attack and Release
Nonesuch Records (4/1/08)
The story goes like this: Danger Mouse, über-producer for the ’00s, was working on an album with rhythm & blues & spousal-abuse legend Ike Turner, and tapped the modern stripped-down psychedelic-blues duo The Black Keys for a few tracks. Once ol’ Ike shit the bed, the project was scrapped. Realizing that they’d struck relative paydirt by combining the low-fi sounds of the Keys with the mind-bending soundscapes of the Mouse, a full-album collaboration was in order.
Once news of this hit, fans of both acts collectively had a simultaneous geekgasm that likely gummed up many a keyboard. The album was set to drop April 1, but it wanted to be cool like the rest of the new albums and get released early. So us Pavlovian geeks dutifully went out and downloaded Attack and Release as soon as it became available. And guess what? It sucks.
Well, that’s not quite fair. It’s far from unlistenable. The few teaser singles that were dropped early certainly gave no indication that the record was going to be a letdown. “Strange Times” ties a powerful, dirty riff to a lockstep handclap-driven beat. Danger Mouse provides some cool effects in the background, with a spectral vocal chorus highlighting the track (the chorus samples oohing and ahhing their purdy lil electronic hearts out is a Danger Mouse staple; see Gnarls Barkley’s latest).
In fact, with the simple guitar and drum setup that the Black Keys employ, Danger Mouse acts almost as a third member, with his sampling being played like an added instrument rather than a part of the overall track. Damning with faint praise, sezzeye, because while this comes across as kind of contrary to the Keys’ trademark sound, it works in the context given and is a proud testament to one of the best producers working today. “Psychotic Girl”, the other lead off single, is the standout track of the record, with a good chicken-peckin’ country-rock groove. In the similar vein is album opener “All You Ever Wanted”, which marinates a classic stripped down two-step beat in reverb and echo. It sounds like Hank Williams Sr. having a hallucinogenic fever dream until it breaks out into a triumphant organ. This leads right into “I Got Mine”, a beastlly riff monster with some standout Danger Mouse production, and a similar ghost-choir effect as “Strange Times.”
After that, the album gets bogged down… bad. “Lies” is a turgid slow jam but it has a kind of standard blues riff that seems way, way, too simple for the Black Keys. They’ve always made a habit of keeping things simple but there’s simple and then there’s simplistic. “Remember When (Side A)” and its reprise “Remember When (Side B)”, as well as “Oceans and Streams” and album closer “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” all feel like they came out of a ’60s era “Learn To Play The Blues!” fakebook. I don’t know if this is all a result of their planned project for Ike Turner or if they were planning on going in a simpler direction all along, but I was expecting lowdown grittyness and instead got what sounds like what it really is: two white boys aping a style that peaked years before they were even born.
If this record was kept as low-fi and stripped-down as the rest of the Black Keys’ catalog it would have killed their career. After the first few tracks, the album’s pace slows down and never picks back up. It’s really only Danger Mouse’s production that saves a lot of tracks (check out the ultra-cool atmospheric flute sample on the jungley “Same Old Thing”, or the subtle theremin vibe from “Remember When (Side A)” that shows up again on “So He Won’t Break”). By no means do I think that Attack and Release is a complete disaster of an album. I just think that what could have been something epic, with Danger Mouse producing, turned into something drab due to unwarranted experimentation. Here’s to hoping that on their next album, Danger Mouse is back in the producer’s chair, and the Black Keys go back to their roots. Not the roots of blues but their roots as a scuzzy blues-rock band, because that’s where they really shine.
Tags: Danger Mouse