The Keys should thank Ike Turner for this one‚ because the story behind this album goes like this: Danger Mouse (you know‚ the Gnarls Barkley‚ Grey Album guy) approached the band and asked them to write and record a song for Turner's upcoming record that he was producing. The band accepted‚ but the plan fell through when Mr. Turner passed away in December. Thus‚ the Black Keys made this album‚ clearly having a producer they liked‚ some songs they liked‚ and nothing to do with them.
Attack & Release marks a lot of firsts for the band-first time in a professional recording studio‚ first time with a producer who isn't Patrick Carney (the band's drummer)‚ and first time with additional instrumentation‚ as the album makes use of horn arrangements‚ female backup vocals‚ and the guest work of both Mark Ribot and Ralph Carney. Not everything here works‚ but when it does‚ it's some of the freshest stuff the Keys have done in years. While their past three albums were good‚ they all worked with the same essential formula of a dirt simple garage-punk faux-delta blues romp'n'stomp that made good use of their bone-dry guitar and drums setup‚ not to mention Dan Auerbach's blue-eyed howl. But here‚ on songs like "Lies‚" "So He Won't Break‚" "Oceans and Streams‚" and "Things Ain't Like They Used to Be‚" the duo works a newfound blue-eyed soul to go along with Dan's soulful ways of expression.
"Lies" is one of the best songs they've ever done‚ as it sounds nearly as haunting as any ballad to come out of '60s-era Memphis. "I got a storm where my heart should be‚" Dan sings; then he sings it again‚ only now he's backed by an amalgam of horns and backing vocal harmonies that sound like a funeral gospel exploding into your ears in a Spector-esque wall of sound. In other words‚ this is soul music‚ and the fact that Dan‚ a young‚ skinny‚ white dude from Ohio‚ can convince us that he's a soulful crooner from the Deep South is pretty damn impressive.
The final triumvirate is the album's high point: "So He Won't Break" and "Oceans and Streams" are both white-hot funk groovers‚ and "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be‚" a ballad that Dan sings with country singer Jessica Lea Mayfield‚ is dazzling. It's easy to call the song an updated version of "The Flame‚" a ballad off their last album. And this certainly is an improvement; it's more poignant‚ genuine‚ and Dan's guitar solo seems to wrench more out of his deepest‚ darkest depths.
If only they held this momentum throughout. A few of the earlier songs are nothing but novel experiments that fall through the cracks. "All You Ever Wanted" opens the album in acoustic‚ country rock fashion‚ sounding like a cross between CCR's "Who'll Stop the Rain" and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky‚" and "Psychotic Girl" makes equal use of both banjo twang and hip-hop basslines‚ thus making it sound like it's being pulled to the blues' future and its past in equal tugs. While both songs are exciting for the new directions they take‚ they don't offer anything really special‚ save for on awesome lyric- "I'll be a blackbird hangin' on your telephone wire"-that Dan sings towards the end of "All You Ever Wanted."
One also has to wonder what they were thinking with "Remember When (Side A)‚" a song that sounds like it was crafted on a toy computer with dubby psychedelia that flounders along like a fish in the deep sea episode of Planet Earth; kinda cool if you're stoned‚ but not what you need for a whiskey-fueled night of debauchery at the juke joint. The worst thing you could really call these new experiments‚ however‚ is a growing pain‚ something that hopefully finds the band on the cusp of something much greater‚ because the songs that do work show their sound making more progress than it has in years. Sure‚ there's plenty to enjoy here‚ but probably even more to hope for in their next endeavor.