The Black Keys

Attack and Release

(Nonesuch; 2008)

By Clayton Purdom | 10 April 2008

I disclaim now, at the top: I do not hate Danger Mouse. But I can’t compliment him without insulting him and I can’t insult him without vice versa. Dude just has a singular ability to fuck good shit up! He’s some kind of superstar now, which is strange, because if I were to put it cynically what he’s done is position himself next to talent and cash the ensuing checks, and if I were to put it kindly he’s—well, what, exactly? Brought the best out of these artists? Made the (okay) bouncy beat for “Crazy” and then coaxed out that blindsiding chorus? Like I said, I don’t hate Danger Mouse. He’s innocuous enough, and anyway I like to reserve all my hatred for the cast and crew of Southland Tales. But whenever I want to cast him as a profiteer all I need remember is that his rise to fame came from a fucking mash-up. He wedged himself between the Beatles and Jay-Z, drew the attention of all the fans of either (read: everyone), and even if his income thereof wasn’t monetary he did net a couple thousand words in major newspapers by Chuck Klostermans and next to pictures like this:

Look at that fucking face. In “mashing” “up” Hova’s impassioned Black Album (2004) and the Beatles’ effervescent “White” one (1968) Danger Mouse found a way to make both boring, an analgesic effect that he’s since applied to the unconscionably talented Cee-Lo Green and the wildly enjoyable MF Doom. Ever tasteful, the producer has attached himself to two new records that fancifully toe the line between indie and mainstream. The new Gnarls Barkley is probably the higher-profile of the two, and it is an album so sedate I can barely hear it. The more critically interesting is Attack and Release, officially the new Black Keys record but technically a full songwriting/production collaboration with Danger Mouse intended for Ike Turner as a comeback effort (seriously). It again shows the producer’s strange facility for music that moves with the largesse and swagger of greatness but none of the, um, greatness. Thus choruses swell, riffs rock, strange sonic pathways are taken, but the listener remains unmoved.

I have followed the Black Keys closely since their debut, 2002’s The Big Come Up. A band from my exact corner of the world and with a penchant for playing visceral live shows at various dark bars within that corner, the Black Keys’ debut emerged while the dust was still settling on that whole “garage rock” thing we were all so excited about. It was a record of raw thought, of razorblade cymbal crashes and bruising sincerity. It was also one of the only guitar-based albums I’d tolerate during my deep, musty Wu-Tang phase of that era. Each of the Black Keys’ ensuing records has found the band reaching for a strange type of perfection, a sort of unexciting but ineluctable high quality. Like, say, the Constantines, the sonic makeup that initially drew us to the Black Keys has been whittled away to a core of strong, traditional songwriting, but unlike (say) the Constantines, it feels with the Black Keys like they’re turning into the band they’ve always wanted to be. And while subjectively that is a band less and less interesting to me, objectively I know that an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers (2006’s Chulahoma) is an awesome thing for these dudes to have made.

Danger Mouse is generally mislabeled these days as a hip-hop producer, but it was my quaint hope that his influence would return to the Black Keys some of the intestinal filthiness of their debut. Alas: Patrick Carney’s once-thunderous drums have been tempered further still, his lank live persona stripped of its lean, leaning anger; he sounds like a session player here. The songwriting—which used to seem like a delightfully unintended side effect of the instrumental dynamism—is placed center stage and looks unbecoming under Danger Mouse’s lite-psych lighting. These are average Black Keys songs, really, just tricked out with trilling blues organs in places, or a sort of please-compare-this-to-OK-Computer spaciness on “Remember When (Side A),” or on one particularly unconscionable instance a goddamn didgeridoo, a lookatme! instrument grab as subtle and rewarding as that second drummer in the band Slipknot.

It’s impossible to imagine what this record would’ve been like had Turner lived to record it, because there are triumphs to be had. “Lies” features an openly anguished chorus, pupils dilated and fists clenched bellowing the song’s title. “All You Ever Wanted” ambles convincingly and “Psychotic Girl” exploits the walking bass lines and haunted house vocals for which Danger Mouse is noted. Perhaps Turner would’ve contained that incendiary spark housed within the best comebacks and pushed these recordings out of their staid self-satisfaction; perhaps Patrick Carney would’ve brought the pile of hot shit I know he keeps on his person and trashed the drum kit; perhaps Danger Mouse would’ve set up the mics and let the tempos move where they please, cartoon choirs be damned. The title Attack and Release implies the best aspects of the Black Keys’ music, all sweat and hurt and sweat and ecstasy, but the album neither gives nor takes, neither emotional nor sweaty but still clammy-handed. Further progress down this path—and by “this path” I mean the one laid out by Danger Mouse—could turn these dark, witty musicians into failed sonic philosophers, a sort of drunk man’s Vines. And nobody needs that.