2008 / Music

Review: Black Keys Unlock Sounds Beyond Blues On New LP

Akron Duo Enlist All-Star Producer To Guide Fifth Disc

The Black Keys were born under a bad sign. Or perhaps more appropriately, they were born at the wrong time.

Photo: Nonesuch Records

Photo: Nonesuch Records

Had the Akron, Ohio-based, indie-rockers started releasing records at any other time besides the first decade of the 21st century, the group would probably be a monster act lionized by critics for their unique musical approach. As it is, the undiscriminating listener today might shrug them off as the Stone Temple Pilots of the current underground rock scene.

Overshadowed by their more popular neighbors to the north — Detroit’s White Stripes — the Black Keys have toiled on the edge of acceptance, perfecting their hard-edged sound over four well-regarded albums. They have honed a unique, thudding style despite sharing with the White Stripes an economical two-person lineup and a love of brawling electric blues fused with Kraken-sized ’70s rock. In the era when Pro Tools offered every musician the opportunity to create bedroom symphonies, both camps discovered that stripping back their arrangements to brutalistic guitar riffs and boom-crash drumming gave their songs an explosive power all the multi-tracking in the world couldn’t match.

While the boiled-down approach has proven a winning formula, the groups have recognized that artistic evolution — not stagnation — is the true path to a sustainable career. The Black Keys, perhaps slower than Stripes mastermind Jack White, realized that an artist or band seeking to make headway can’t live on steroid-infused blues alone. (This is why White produced a disc with country queen Loretta Lynn and is currently pretending to be Big Star 2.0 with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson in the Raconteurs.) On the Black Keys’ new album, “Attack & Release,” the pair has finally caught up with their competition.

A change in the wind wasn’t evident last year in the Black Keys’ ham-fisted take on “The Wicked Messenger,” which instead became one of the true musical revelations on the inconsistent, two-disc “I’m Not There” soundtrack — only Thelonious Monster Bob Forrest’s hillbilly arrangement of “Moonshiner” and Mark Lanegan’s brooding “Man In The Long Black Coat” rivaled it. For all the ingenious arrangement’s dinosaur-sized splendor, the song and the band stayed true to the Keys’ trademark sound.

Instead, the duo reserved this creative flip-flop for “Attack & Release.” The album might feature a track called “Same Old Thing,” but this is a new musical paradigm for the Black Keys. Consisting of vocalist-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, the group is finally embracing new instruments and sounds that unlock entire sonic worlds beyond Chicago’s south side. Boys, banjos can be your friends!

Drafted to guide the Keys’ transformation is beatmaster Danger Mouse. One half of neo-soul, hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley and infamous for creating the Beatles-Jay-Z illegal mashup, “The Grey Album,” Danger Mouse has become perhaps pop music’s most sought-after producer. He’s proven adept at working in pop, hip-hop and alternative rock (is it a surprise then that he’s rumored to be working with Beck?) Danger Mouse was originally brought in to augment a collaboration between the Keys and Ike Turner, the notorious songwriter-producer who was arguably one of the founders of rock’n’roll. When Turner died unexpectedly last year, Danger Mouse and the Keys opted to continue on without him.

Instead of a Turner-sanctioned rhythm and blues revival, the new record has Auerbach and Carney stretching out their three-minute-plus ditties with vocal harmonies, synthesizers, organs, clarinets and the odd sample or drum machine. The infusion of fresh sounds brings forward other influences and textures buried under the duo’s customary dinosaur thrashing, but without making the songs seem completely uncharacteristic of the band. The Keys have typically favored low-fi, punchy production on their preceding discs and so credit goes to Danger Mouse for drastically improving the depth of field on the Keys new songs, creating a richer overall soundscape.

Take “Lies,” a slow-burning, blues waltz that on previous records might have been just a slow song, but now sounds like an emotional epic. The track unfurls in delightfully agonizing slowness, guitar licks inching the melody forward only to be nearly flattened by the factory-stamping crash of Carney’s high-hat. Bass clarinets and other keyboard notes flesh out the composition and build the intensity. Ratcheting up the tension further, Auerbach achingly croons the lyrics, a suicide note structured like a bit of Robert Johnson poetry. At the song’s harrowing apex, Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot delivers a terrifyingly ethereal guitar solo that howls like a distant bomb siren before dissipating back into the verses.

Odder still but equally marvelous is “Psychotic Girl.” The troika of Auerbach, Carney and Danger Mouse experiment with a hybrid of country music and Dr. Dre gangsta funk. The cut begins with a banjo sparring with a strolling bass line and a funky drum pattern. A piano fills the role as Auerbach’s vocal foil, plinking to reiterate the point of each verse. Near its conclusion, Danger Mouse injects some Bernie Worrell keyboard squiggles that imply the P-Funk mothership might have landed somewhere very far a field — maybe literally in a field — and picked up some weird instruments and rhythms along the way.

Their palette now broadened, the group hasn’t given up on using volume to their advantage. “I Got Mine” is the Black Keys gloriously returning to what they do best: just rocking out. The song is a Black Sabbath-channeled prog-rock brawl with an array of riffs thundering down as Carney pummels his drum kit. Those cymbals take a beating. Taking a different tact is the disc’s first single, “Strange Times,” which has the same aggressive power as “I Got Mine,” but is more deliberately a pop song than an amped-up blues jam. Auerenbach directs his linear riffs in brief, pointed bursts and allows other melodies and instruments to emerge.

This dichotomy between the Keys’ old and new sound is best compared in the two-part suite at the core of the record, “Remember When (Side A)” and “Remember When (Side B).” The first part is a laconic country blues with an acoustic guitar and menagerie of spacey keyboards and tripped out oscillators impersonating slide guitars and harmony vocals. The second part is all hard-rock, testosterone-fueled energy. The pair, joined by Danger Mouse on bass, rock with a fury and desperation that like they’re playing their set closer. The band is reveling in all the new sounds available in Danger Mouse’s toolkit, but they know they have to bring it back home at the end.

That end should propel the Black Keys to a much larger audience. While the new disc might not have a hit of the caliber of “Seven Nation Army” or “Fell In Love With A Girl,” we should expect positive buzz will make the group a bigger draw during their subsequent tour. It also shouldn’t be a surprise to see the record wind up on many critics best-of lists come December.

If the Black Keys seemed unlucky before, “Attack & Release” suggests a change in their fortunes. With Danger Mouse’s help, the stars now seemed to have aligned in their favor. The Keys are now reborn and under a sign that bodes them well.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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