Album Review: The Black Keys - "Attack & Release"

When word came a few months ago that esteemed hip-hop producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, The Grey Album) would be behind the boards for the new Black Keys record, Attack & Release, my initial reaction was that at the very least it would have more life to it than 2006’s rather dull Magic Potion. I figured on the heels of all the attention they got for Rubber Factory, not to mention signing on with Nonesuch Records, the band was poised to catapult to the top of the indie-rock world with its follow up. But of course that never happened, and for me The Black Keys remained among my second or third tier of favorite modern rock bands. Well, Attack & Release was released last week and it doesn’t disappoint at all - in fact it’s the best album, from start to finish, that the band has ever released. Working in a real studio for the first time has led to increased production qualities throughout these 11 tracks, but for the most part Danger Mouse smartly avoids trying to tamper with the band’s trademark hard blues-rock sound. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with all sorts of blips and beats, he simply adds the occasional flourish (a little banjo here, a little piano there, backing vocals in a few places) to keep things interesting.

Though he has helped shape Attack & Release into The Black Keys’ most adventurous album to date, Danger Mouse is not the star. That role belongs squarely to the dynamic Akron, Ohio duo of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Karney. I wouldn’t necessarily say that their songwriting has grown by leaps and bounds on Attack & Release over earlier efforts such as The Big Come Up, Thickfreakness, or Rubber Factory, but it is certainly more consistent. Meaning if you’ve enjoyed the Keys’ in the past, then this album will be right up your alley. Lead single “Strange Times” is effective, if not as incredible as “10 A.M. Automatic“ or “Set You Free”, and “I Got Mine” and “Remember When (Side B)” rock out familiarly. “Lies” is a dark, incendiary slow-burner that recalls early Zeppelin (and may better it), and the Danger Mouse fingerprints come through on the haunted country-blues of “Psychotic Girl” in the tinkered piano and ghostly background vocals.

The album’s high points though may be a trio of laid-back tracks that employ open space better than anything in the Keys back catalog - opener “All You Ever Wanted” ambles beautifully, Auerbach showing off his gruff vocals more than usual. “Remember When (Side A)” and “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” are similarly gripping and effective - both heartfelt songs of pure heartache. What makes this their best effort to date is the fact that they kept it to a brisk 11 songs, without any filler. Each song is individually memorable, and many, including “Same Old Thing” and “So He Won’t Break”, get better with more listens. The only thing that’s going to keep Attack & Release from attaining the same level of indie-rock stardom as, say, Band of Horses, is the lack of a truly gripping single with crossover potential, a la the aforementioned “10 A.M. Automatic”. But that’s fine with me. The Black Keys, to these ears always a band on the cusp, have finally released an album that fulfills their early promise. Welcome to my first tier boys.

MP3 :: Strange Times
MP3 :: Remember When (Side A)
(from Attack & Release. Buy here)

1 comment:

China said...

So now that I've seen your review...

I mostly agree. But, I don't think this is their best - their first record was what blew me away (I know, I know, an opinion versus an opinion). And I don't get why so many people love "10 A.M. Automatic" over a lot of their other songs. Maybe I'm disagreeing because they've been a first-tier favorite for me for about five years. But it's interesting to see how they're viewed by someone who's not as batty in love with them. You're very fair about it!