By: Dennis Cook
This crawls into your marrow and disturbs your rest. It's not the blues but it's gone drinking with them. For sure, it's rock 'n' roll but with a haunted echo behind even the good time pronouncements. The Black Keys couldn't have chosen a more apt title for their fifth album. This comes at you and then eases off, only to repeat the cycle again and again. As the groove progresses, one feels grappled and diddled, caressed and spanked, and if you just let them have their way with you it's gonna be a fine ol' time.
Originally intended as a song cycle for Ike Turner, there's plenty of pimp hand to Attack & Release (Nonesuch), as well as Turner's bizarro tunings and unexpected honesty. Ike would have sounded amazing if they'd wrangled him into recording with them – a likely career resurrection for the pariah – but Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitar, keys) and Patrick Carney (drums, percussion) make this dog howl just fine, helped along by producer/instigator Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley). Often built around simplistic phrases ("I got mine" or "Strange times are here") and positively Cro-Magnon hooks, in lesser hands much of this would be a little rote. But, The Black Keys are anything but rote, ever, and Attack refines their virtues and gooses their creative adrenal gland in a big way.
Both instantly accessible and a slow boil, the album operates on a lot of levels even when you don't think it is. One time you'll head-snap to the brutal MC5-esque riff on "I Got Mine" but the next pass it's the flower power psych cloud that drifts in around the two-minute mark that enchants. Danger Mouse fits them with undulating production accessorized by vintage keys (Celeste, Chamberlain, Hammond B-3) and a backward arching character that wrestles with the band's urge for modernity. Tension and relaxation is the tempo of the conversation that occurred in the studio. While the drums hit with sub-woofer shaking authority, the vocal line often teases, or when the percussion drops back the lyric bursts into a sharp cry. Auerback's vocals truly come into their own here, a gruff, gorgeous offspring of Savoy Brown's Chris Youlden and Robin Trower's James Dewar, a "Train To Nowhere" and a "Bridge of Sighs" echoing in the reaches of his delivery.
It doesn't hurt that the Keys have never written more clearly or effectively. "Psychotic Girl" is an aural carnival ride you can take over and over and still get a happy knot in your stomach. The Kinks-like "Remember When" is a two-part trip to rock's archetypal garage, and believe you me, the cooler is stocked and the amps go to 11. And if there's a sexier tune than "So He Won't Break" this year I'll be surprised; a wonderfully plaintive delivery and '60s Motown rhythm make for melancholy go-go, a theme song for sad strippers and lonely bedroom dancers. Everywhere, especially on closer "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," there's a longing for the redemption and solace found in another's arms, though touched by a desperate edge that's both dangerous and a little sad, and thus quite real.
It'd be easy enough to keep heaping praise on various elements, but suffice it to say the imagination and talent gathered on Attack & Release make it a shoe-in for Best of 2008 lists everywhere. Often that sounds like hype but in this case it's just a statement of fact. Once in a while quality just shines out in a way that can't be denied.
JamBase | Akron
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