A while back, I asked a friend to listen to The Black Keys’ 2004 “Rubber Factory.” After a brief listen, he came back and said, “Dude, they’re just like the White Stripes.” This heretical statement started an argument between us that still hasn’t been resolved.
Though the Black Keys have spent their whole career drawing comparisons to the “red and white monster,” their new album “Attack & Release” might change all that.
Made up of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, two young white guys from Akron, Ohio, the Keys have mastered the art of blues-heavy, fuzzed out minimalist rock. But their style appears to be evolving, thanks to the influence of musician-producer Danger Mouse, whose musical reputation is so eminent he could turn lead into gold.
On the new album, The Black Keys’ simplistic methodology of heavily distorted guitar and crashing drums has been supplemented by a versatile array of industry-standard tools such as banjos, beats and synthesizers. In fact, this is the first album that the Keys have recorded in a studio, abandoning the dusty basements of Akron. Listening to “Attack & Release” alongside the Keys’ previous albums confirms this fact. This record was surely made with ProTools, not a 4-track.
From the start of the album’s opener, “All You Ever Wanted,” it is clear something has changed. The track doesn’t start off with a catchy electric guitar riff or roaring cymbals as per usual, but builds on a slow, steady beat and accompanying folk guitar. Yes, the guitar rampages and thundering percussions enter the song later on, but the point has already been made: Auerbach’s Telecaster and Carney’s drum kit are no longer the sole stars of the show.
Although they may be new to the world of arrangement, the Keys obviously are fast learners. Their more complicated tracks display a level of sophistication and musical ken that is almost surprising, if not pervasive. Danger Mouse demonstrates his talent by adding his trip-hop goodies to underscore the melody.
“Psychotic Girl” and the album’s lead single, “Strange Times,” are both great examples of the Key’s signature sound blending with these rhythmic tactics. Both sync Auerbach’s distinctive guitar progressions succinctly with symmetrical drumbeats, eerie pianos and ghostlike choruses.
That being said, there still are instances where the Keys revert to their primal nature, as on the distorted “I Got Mine” and “Remember When (Side B)”. But even these tracks feel a bit more polished, if only because they have better production value than their counterparts on previous Black Keys LPs.
Despite this new feel, what will keep “Attack & Release” so recognizable to old BK Fans is Auerbach’s soulful vocals. Much of the record’s subject material is melancholic or at least introspective, and Auerbach croons with a tone of experience and sagacity akin to his ruminations on “The Flame,” a contemplative ballad off 2006’s “Magic Potion”. The most poignant and arresting track in this vein is “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”, an album closer that offers a considerable level of foresight. Auerbach tragically reminisces like a man who’s been beaten down by the world but refuses to notice the bruises.
It’s clear that The Black Keys found themselves at a crossroads. They could either revamp their sound to avoid a musician’s most deadly sin, repetitiveness, or they could stick to their roots and continue to please their diehard fan-base with blunted fuzz rock.
But on “Attack & Release”, it appears they discovered a compromise through which they can expand their musical range while still playing like they were born on the Delta.
Take that, Jack White.