27 April, 2008

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

Release Date: April 1, 2008
Label: Nonesuch Records
No. of Tracks: 11

Have you ever found yourself lying in bed at night trying to go to sleep but can't, because you cannot stop wondering what would happen if a two-man blues band teamed up with a premier hip-hop producer to record an album? Well, this album is your answer.

Composed of guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, Akron's The Black Keys are that two-man blues band. The band's three previous full-length studio albums have exhibited a notoriously minimalistic and rough sound. Much like the early White Stripes' albums, the band had opted to record using old-fashioned tape reels instead of modern day digital mixing equipment. This technique lent a "dirty" sound to their previous albums, enchancing the band's simple guitar-and-drums approach.

Enter Atlanta native Danger Mouse, famous for his controversial "Grey Album" and one-half of the hip-hop/rock crossover group Gnarls Barkley. This is not the first time Danger Mouse has worked on a rock album (he also produced The Rapture's fantastic 2006 release "Pieces of the People We Love"), but it is certainly the first time he has dabbled in the realm of blues. Danger Mouse's influence on this album is very subtle. Don't expect any heavy basslines or added electronic elements. Instead, Danger Mouse seems to have coaxed an even more soulful sound from TBK, even some funk, accompanying the band with more traditional background instruments such as flute, piano, and steel guitar. And this album, also like the newest White Stripes' release, is heavily produced and has a crisp, clean sound to it. This allows the album to have a more upbeat feel while maintaining the ever-present bittersweet blues undertones.

The album begins with the track "All You Ever Wanted", a plodding ballad which eventually explodes into an organ-driven jam. "I Got Mine" is the band's first single from this release, and it is a straight-ahead rocker. "Strange Times" is the first track where Danger Mouse's influence can be clearly detected. This song exhibits a much different drumming style than previously heard from Mr. Carney. The next track, "Psychotic Girl", continues this trend with a cymbal-heavy drumbeat and ghostly backing vocals. "Remember When" is a perfect example of the range this band displays in their music. The track is split into two parts: Side A and Side B. Side A is a melancholy, almost gospel-sounding track, with lightly plucked guitars and a haunting steel guitar accompaniment. Side B, on the other hand, returns the band to a hard rocker which would easily fit into any of their previous releases. This nostalgia is short-lived as "Same Old Thing" continues Danger Mouse's influence, with a flute sample (possibly from Jethro Tull) leading the song in and sending the song out. "So He Won't Break" is all blues lyrically, but musically shows a bit of a hipster, surf rock side. The last track, "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be", is the most poignant track and a perfect choice for a send off offering. It gently releases the listener, and allows the band, not the producer, to have the last word.

Special Note: The iTunes version of this album has an additional track titled "Mr. Dibbs' 'Fight for Air' Mash-Up". It is basically a remix with small samples from most of the album's tracks thrown in with heavy bass, beat drops, and the tried-and-true "instructional narrator" voice sample.

Overall, this has to be considered TBK's best release to date. Some long-time fans may miss the stripped-down sound and strictly blues approach, but this album is a huge step forward for the band. It exhibits a wide range of emotions and challenges the listener to keep up. It also escapes the band's previous tendency to be a bit redundant over the course of an album.

The band will be touring the Northeastern US in mid-May before heading off to Europe and Australia (no Atlanta show has been announced yet). They are also confirmed to play several festivals across the US later this summer (including Lollapalooza and The Austin City Limits Festival). The band does have four weeks in July for which no shows have been announced, so keep checking their official website (http://theblackkeys.com/category/tour/) for more possible summer dates.

Essential Tracks: "I Got Mine", "Strange Times", "Remember When (Side A & B)", "So He Won't Break"

Rating (out of 5): 4.0

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