So here’s the story behind Attack & Release, the sixth Black Keys disc in just as many years: originally, it was penned by the band and studio wizard Danger Mouse as a comeback album for R&B legend Ike Turner. But late last year, Turner died before he could lend his voice to the project; so instead of scrapping the album, the Keys recorded the thing themselves in all of two short months. And now, six weeks after its release, Attack stands as much a better tribute to Ike than the best obituary. If he’s rolling over in his grave, it’s ’cause he can’t shake the groove.
For proof, look no further than “Remember When (Side B)” — a chorusless, four-chord stomp that fits thirty seconds of menacing guitar solo into two minutes. It’s the CD’s centerpiece, and the boldest statement that the “attack” side of this album has to offer: “The winter wind smacks you on your cheeks again,” sings Dan Auerbach to a former lover, “Well it stings!”
Ever-prolific and still critically beloved, the Black Keys (made up of just Auerback and drummer Patrick Carney) have now perfected a blue-banner brand of blues so dark and murky that our country’s only other blues duo might as well be called the Whitebread Stripes. Attack & Release is their opus: lyrically inventive, funky and rocking at once, and helmed with just enough of Danger Mouse’s sonic invention that it stands above the rest of their impressive back catalogue — even 2006’s superb Rubber Factory. Just take a listen to standout “So He Won’t Break,” which roughly approximates Cream covering Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” On its own, the grimy riff isn’t far removed from the Key’s own “All Hands Against His Own” (also from ’06) — but Danger Mouse layers on violinic guitar sweeps and and an eel-slick bassline to turn it into something quite majestic.
Other highlights benefit equally from Danger Mouse’s production and an impressive bound in songwriting skill from Auerbach and Carney. “Psychotic Girl,” a mind-meld of banjo, plucked piano and an eery guitar loop, details a girl whom Don Henley might euphemize as a witchy woman. The one-two punch of “I Got Mine” and “Strange Times,” meanwhile, boasts the swampiest guitar riffs on the album — with “Strange Times” borrowing half from Collective Soul’s “Gel” and half from Black Sabbath. Even “Same Old Thing,” a track that despite its title sounds like nothing the Keys have even tried before, doesn’t seem out of place with its handclaps, pipe flute and tribal percussion. Danger Mouse is smart to paint his production pallette with every color, but smarter still not to overshadow the blues.
Attack & Release‘s softer side, on the other hand, provides some of the prettiest tracks we’ve heard from the Keys yet. Opener “All You Ever Wanted” approaches country western until its final third, when the whole thing collapses into organ-assisted carnival funk. And “Lies,” which finds Auerbach at his most contemplative, is bare-bone blues aided only by a crew of backround singers working their graveyard shift. “I wanna die,” sings Auerbach, clever to pause before delivering the second half of the couplet: “…without pain.” It’s a simple, heartfelt message, and yet another reminder that you don’t need a broken heart to sing the blues — but it sure helps.
So while I’m not one to downcast the Key’s future potential, Attack & Release might very well be the best forty minutes of their career. It’s the only disc you can truly tell apart from the rest of their output, and thank Danger Mouse’s subtle instrumentation for that. So when Auerbach sings the titular line on album closer “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be,” we’re left thinking that maybe that ain’t so bad.