THE BLACK KEYS: ATTACK & RELEASE (2008)
1) All You Ever Wanted; 2) I Got Mine; 3) Strange Times; 4) Psychotic Girl; 5) Lies; 6) Remember When (Side A); 7) Remember When (Side B); 8) Same Old Thing; 9) So He Won't Break; 10) Oceans & Streams; 11) Things Ain't Like They Used To Be.
Time machine detected: I gave Magic Potion a «thumbs down» in 2011, and the band admittedly reacted to it in 2008. Could it be that someone else gave it a thumbs down, too?.. Because with The Black Keys' fifth major original LP, comes the biggest change in sound these guys ever allowed themselves; in fact, the change is so huge that it almost threatens to undermine the band's very reasons for existence.
For starters, the album was recorded in a proper studio this time, instead of barns, garages, abandoned silver mines, and the central sewer system of Shitsville, USA. Next, there is an outside producer: Danger Mouse, a.k.a. B. J. Burton, formerly known for inventive rap-rock remixes and producing the Gorillaz and Beck — not even close to anything associable with Dan Auerbach. There is also an outside extra musician — guitar player extraordinaire Marc Ribot, whom most people probably know for his Tom Waits collaborations, but who is actually a huge individuality in his own right. Finally, for the first time ever, the songs lose their stern minimalism: in addition to guitar and drums, there are banjos, organs, chimes, flutes (!), backing vocals, whatever. Even the guitar sound is more diverse — there is plenty of acoustic playing here, and several different electric tones as opposed to the monotonous distorted garage growl of yesterday.
How does it work? For the moment — it works fine, and was probably the rightest thing to do. Despite cleaner production and instrumental diversity, the subtle sloppiness and rawness are still there, as are Auerbach's songwriting instincts. But now he also has the chance to allow to judge these songs based on more than one criterion (lack/presence of an awesome riff). Some of the songs, in fact, are not riff-based at all, e. g. 'So He Won't Break' — a moody combination of blues rhythms, Ribot's «broken» chord sequences, psychedelic chimes, and psychotic nasal vocals from Danny, instead of the usual roar. Did I say «psychotic»? There's a song called 'Psychotic Girl' here, whose odd vibe would be more suitable for the Pixies rather than the Keys. That's how far they are willing to go this time in order to remodel their face.
It is hard to complain, either, when the melodies are so good. On the hard-rocking tunes, Auerbach regains the ability to strike out those awesome riffs — or perhaps they just sound awesome in contrast to the «softer» tunes this time — the melody of 'Strange Times', for instance, borrows a few chords from Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf', incorporating them into a faster, sweatier garage riff, to very good effect. 'Same Old Thing' (nothing to do with several classic blues tunes with the same name) is built on a very atmospheric guitar pattewrn, unfortunately, stuffed a bit too deep into the background — making the song less effective and memorable than it could be. Fortunately, the Tull-like flute embellishments will help it register in the mind.
Overall, the record is hardly a masterpiece, for the same old reasons — you'd have to be the genius to shame all genii, to put out a «masterpiece» based on reshuffling the good old blues-rock / garage-rock chord stock as late as 2008 — but, for Auerbach and his drummer pal, it opens the road to survival and development. Purists may feel betrayed, yet I think that their schtick can work even with flutes and banjos — thumbs up.
It is hardly a coincidence that the closing number, a duet between Danny and minimalist country girl Jessica Lea Mayfield, is called 'Things Ain't Like They Used To Be'. In fact, it is a blatant anthemic statement — so straightforward that it ain't even all that fun. But, like almost everything else on here, the song still manages to be touching and softly inspiring. Who cares if it hangs on just one melodic vocal line? It is still the real thing.
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