The Black Keys Turn the Page
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Had Ike Turner’s life force not vanished up his own 76-year-old nose a few months ago, there wouldn’t be a new Black Keys album to enjoy today. That’s probably not how the Ohio-based blues-rock duo will market its fifth full-length record, “Attack & Release” (Nonesuch Records), but it should say something, to the devoted and uninitiated alike, about where the band has been and where it’s going. The Keys might sport a combined age of 56, but after seven years and four albums, their desire to stretch the bounds of the two-man approach to dirty rock ‘n’ roll is clear, even if it means bringing in more men (and the occasional woman).
Whether their fans will indulge them remains to be seen. For better or worse, “Attack & Release” houses the most stylistically diverse set of songs the band has released to date. Some are exceptional, others pedestrian, and as usual, none can be dismissed.
Last year, the psychedelic-minded hip-hop producer Danger Mouse (one half of the soul duo Gnarls Barkley, whose own new album, “The Odd Couple,” was released last week) approached the Black Keys (singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) to compose songs for an album he wanted to produce for the rejuvenated Turner. A plague of head-scratching erupted in the indie rock blogosphere. Ike Turner + Danger Mouse + the Black Keys = what, exactly? If nothing else, the news served as further confirmation that the music being made by these young white guys from the Midwest — stripped-down boogie and distorted, three-chord rock — had found its way under the skin of even the most hard-boiled black giants of the blues. Why wouldn’t Danger Mouse just ask Turner to write his own songs? Because Messrs. Auerbach and Carney have consistently churned out the best blues music of the 21st century from their basement in Akron.
When Turner died of a cocaine overdose in December, Messrs. Auerbach and Carney decided to see the songs they’d written for him to completion and make the result their fifth full-length album. At this point, the curiosity fans felt about a Turner-Mouse-Keys collaboration morphed into outright concern about how the studio wizardry of Danger Mouse, who stayed on as producer, would affect the band’s primal sound.
The unusual genesis of the album makes it difficult to measure that effect. In places, Danger Mouse’s touch is clear. The recycled drum-machine intro on “Remember When (Side A)” and the mechanized twinkles buffering “So He Won’t Break” (among other distinctly non-analog noises that poke through here and there) bear the unmistakable mark of the sort of modern producer with whom the Black Keys have never worked. Many of the beeps and boops seem unnecessary, as if the band wanted to push buttons they had never seen. But much of the experimentation on the album — that is, anything that doesn’t sound like a guy on guitar and a guy on drums recording themselves live in a basement — seems to belong to the band. The crisp pluck of a banjo on “Psychotic Girl” and the Ian Anderson-esque flute that bookends “Same Old Thing” reflect a longer reach into the annals of Americana than the Keys have previously been willing to make.
For the most part it works, as Danger Mouse pulls the band’s sound a little farther from the blue-sky Delta and a little closer to gothic New Orleans. But these two songs also reveal the spectrum of value to be found on “Attack & Release.” “Psychotic Girl” rides a strolling Southern bass riff and a haunting piano line to doleful wonder, tugging pained howls from Mr. Auerbach’s preternaturally soulful voice and evoking a classic Turner contemporary, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
But “Same Old Thing” jumbles the formula too severely. The flute, courtesy of Mr. Carney’s uncle, Ralph, is mere garnish where it could be a building ingredient, and Mr. Auerbach’s normally scathing electric guitar is buried way too far down in the mix, neutering what should be the song’s muscle. The Black Keys have made mistakes before, but submerging the guitar beneath superfluous wind instruments has never been one of them, so this reviewer is inclined to blame Danger Mouse for believing he could sublimate the band’s deadliest weapon. No such problems occur on the album’s finest song, the searing, Junior Kimbrough-inspired blues bomb “I Got Mine,” on which Mr. Auerbach’s guitar is front and center and engulfs the touches of keyboard that paint the background.
“I Got Mine” is the kind of song that Ike Turner helped make famous half a century ago, but to Mr. Auerbach’s immense credit, it’s the tune on “Attack & Release” that one could least imagine Turner singing. It sounds raw and confident and powerful, and it sounds like the Black Keys more than anyone else. Other highlights, such as the burning, mournful “Lies” (featuring a strong piano-driven chorus courtesy of Danger Mouse, who occasionally makes himself a useful third member) and the plaintive, R&B-infused “Oceans and Streams” may not show up on any Black Keys greatest hits packages down the line, but they validate the group’s rare ability to connect tangibly with the music of its elders. Indeed, Turner would have sounded great playing these soulful songs.
Of course, Mr. Auerbach’s lyrics, as per his fascination with the original American bluesmen, pretty much revolve around a singular concept: The woman done him wrong. So it’s probably better that Turner didn’t record much of this material. Lines such as “I heard you threw your man around / picked him up just to let him down” (on “Psychotic Girl”) and “I went around the way for you / did all those things you asked me to” (on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”) might not have passed the irony test, regardless of what the music sounded like.