[There are only so many music columns one man can write in a week, so while Ezra Ace Caraeff is covering for a vacationing Cary Clarke's Our Town Could Be Your Life (pg. 29), Mr. Tonry will be filling in here on Once More with Feeling.]
Nobody saw this one coming: the Black Keys and Danger Mouse. That's right, Akron, Ohio's stripped-down blues-rock duo together with one of hiphop's most innovative producers.
It all began when Danger Mouse (AKA Brian Burton) was working on some tracks for Ike Turner. Burton called in the Black Keys to record some demos. Things moved slowly, and of course, Turner soon passed. Before he did, however, Turner put vocals to two of the Keys' tracks. The band and the legend never got a chance to meet.
"The songs with Ike may come out at some point this year," says the Keys drummer Patrick Carney. "We want them to come out, but it's all up to Ike's estate."
Before Turner's untimely death ended the project, another had begun. The Keys asked Burton to produce their album and he accepted. The results, found on the recently released Attack & Release, are invigorating. Rather than recording themselves in their own environment as they had done before, the band set up shop in a real studio. There were many other firsts, including working with a producer, engineer, and backing musicians.
Wisely, Burton's contributions to Attack & Release are generally subtle and subdued—handclaps here, a keyboard there, and loads of tiny flourishes throughout. But rather than trying to totally reinvent their songwriting, or compete with Dan Auerbach's fierce voice, Burton's slight but rich accents find welcome space. He fashions them into a suggestive, cloudy, rich yet light, often formless, atmospheres.
Burton has said he considers himself akin to a film director and, indeed, what he does here most importantly is create mood. Important contributions come from the backing players as well, including Carney's uncle Ralph (who played with Tom Waits). The elder Carney's jumpy wooden flute gives the American blues guitar riffs a worldly air on "Same Old Thing."
Where the Black Keys' previous records were a formidable document of their live prowess, they couldn't quite match the furor, life, and sweat of an up-close, bashing performance. Attack & Release, however, goes another direction. It is an album, not a snapshot, and with these added layers, it heaves and bellows with much greater depth. Not all things, however, are destined to change. Onstage, it will still be just Carney and Auerbach (although they are bringing a few new instruments).
"Our band is the two of us," says Carney. "That's the way we tour. That's how we play." And in this particular case, no change is needed.
The Black Keys play at the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside, on Friday, April 4.