Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Black Keys-"Attack & Release"

Originally written for

Is heavy, riff based Rock back in style? If the likes of The White Stripes, Wolfmother, Secret Machines, and The Black Keys have anything to say about it the answer is a rousing “Hell Yes!” “Attack and Release” was originally planed as a collaboration between Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney (or The Black Keys as they are collectively known), Ike Turner and producer Danger Mouse. However with the passing of Ike Turner this became impossible and so it became a Black Keys project. Recorded in just 14 days the album has a strong DIY feel from the water color and pencil cover to the hand built recording console that was used during the sessions.

Side A: “All You Ever Wanted” starts off at a medium simmer but mid way through the song the organ enters and it rivals the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in terms of sheer surprise. “I Got Mine” is a stylistic cross pollination of The White Stripes and Robert Johnson, with an unexpected left turn that heads straight for psychedelia and ends with the gentle hum of the guitarist’s tube amp. The third song on the album, “Strange Times” literally stomps. Being propelled by a big bass drum sound and hand claps. The lead melodic instrument of “Psychotic Girl” is an odd lurching bass guitar riff with flourishes of honky tonk piano and banjo. All of this with the addition of the creepy backing vocals are enough to make anyone remember a crazy ex or two. Is she at the front door? Is she going to stab me in the hand with a pencil again? How up to date is my restraining order anyway? All questions this song brought to my mind. Following hot on the heals of “Psychotic Girl” is “Lies,” a master stroke. Once one starts thinking about that crazy ex pondering all of the out there things she used to say is a natural progression. Of course the creepy soundscape is extended throughout this song as well, even more effectively than the previous number.

Side B: At the beginning of “Same Old Thing” the tape machine can be heard getting up to speed adding to the audio-vérité feel present throughout the album. The lyric “No matter where you been/Those people try to do you in/Every day till dawn/There’s some thieving’ going on.” are worthy of being part of any blues standard. The heavy groove and flute have a Black Sabbath meets Jethro Tull feel. “So He Won’t Break” has the best groove on the record. It is the sound of pure seduction aided by a xylophone. The guitar solo is an affectionate nod to Neil Young. “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” is the perfect song to close the album. While calling it epic would be a bit of a stretch its obvious that it’s slower tempo and vocals were meant to invite the listener to follow it’s story of loss and regret. Both the organ and the backing vocals add a sympathetic touch to the song.

The pressing is extremely quiet and utilized the half speed mastering technique. Included with the record is a copy of the album on CD, at $18 the package is a bargain. Other artists should take note, it’s a nice touch for many reasons. It makes importing into iTunes a snap, listening to it in the car easy, it aids in the comparison of vinyl vs. CD for those on the fence, and it comes in handy for loaning to friends who are curious about the band. After spending the last several years servicing other people’s turntables it’s doubtful that I’ll ever lend out my records. The number of people who feel that it’s appropriate to put spare change on top of their tone arms in order to make sure that it tracks or are completely missing the diamond of their stylus is just plain alarming. Records, like girlfriends and wives are not for lending. Use the CD to help spread the word, cherish and hoard the record.

Of course the record has a much wider and deeper soundstage than the CD, no surprise there. What was surprising was how much better the bass was, not just in a tonal sense but dynamically as well. On a few of the songs the low-fi aesthetic goes a bit too far, by adding needless effects to the vocals. That slight misstep wasn’t enough to mar the overall presentation, it just seemed like an unnecessary indulgence.

What are any of the songs about? For the most part who cares? This isn’t a record about lyrics. It’s about the sound, the feel, and the groove. An atmospheric tour de force. While moments on the album remind me of this band or that , overall the album doesn’t remind me of anything else. The Black Keys are very much themselves, creating their own art. With little regard for how it will be received. Seemingly unaffected by corporate interests and focus groups. Something all too rare today.

Sound ***
Performance *** and 1/2

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