Attack & Release 10 Years Later: How a Strange Studio Experiment Poised The Black Keys for Break
April 2, 2018 | by Ryan Bray
It’s hard for bands to carve out a sound of their own, but it’s arguably harder to maintain it and keep it viable. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney bumped up against this problem on 2006’s Magic Potion. After three stellar records worth of mucked-up, lo-fi garage blues, the Akron duo was at least thinking about life after their bargain basement sonic exercises. But as they found on Magic Potion, change isn’t so easy to run to. The Black Keys’ fourth record still checks off all the old boxes, from fuzzy guitar riffage, Carney’s powerful-yet-minimal drumming, and Auerbach’s soulful, white boy blues wail. But there was also a halfway-committed attempt by the duo to clean up its sound, if only just a little. The end result was a record by a band that wanted to branch out into new musical areas, but maybe didn’t yet know how.
If Magic Potion hinted at The Black Keys’ interest in breaking out of the crude DIY mold they fashioned for themselves on records like Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory, they confirmed as much by opting to collaborate with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton for its next effort. Danger Mouse was already a known commodity, thanks to his work on the Jay Z-Beatles mashup The Grey Album and the psych-laden R&B he and Cee Lo Green cooked up as Gnarls Barkley. Still, the acclaimed producer’s musical world seemed miles off from Auerbach and Carney’s. Of course, that was no doubt the point. The Keys likely realized that if real musical change was to come, they weren’t going to make it happen entirely on their own. The duo had self-produced all of its material up to that point, but it would ultimately require someone from outside the brain trust to take The Black Keys where they wanted to go next.
Attack & Release was originally intended as a collaboration between the Keys, Danger Mouse, and the legendary Ike Turner. The news had fans and music insiders’ heads spinning, but Turner’s death in December 2007 put the project as advertised to rest. Still, Auerbach and Carney were enthused enough by what they and Danger Mouse had produced together to carry on. Wise decision. Having first grabbed the music world’s ear through ragged unpretentiousness, the Keys were ready to employ an exact opposite approach. If the duo’s earliest records benefited from not overthinking things too much, Auerbach and Carney were now crossing the bridge from their DIY roots to a more deliberate, arrangement-conscious style of songwriting. Attack & Release proved to the world that The Black Keys could be just as exciting going big with their music as they are keeping things small, effectively setting the table for the more streamlined sound they would cultivate in the years to come.
"It was kind of time for a little bit of a change," Auerbach said of the record retrospectively in an interview with the New York Times in 2012. "We really wanted to use lots of instrumentation and just branch out, more so than we ever had. That was even more reason to have Brian come aboard. We just wanted to get into the studio and build from the ground up."
That said, the record wasn’t a complete breach from Auerbach and Carney’s sonic safe place. There are still moments of no-bullshit guitar muscle, from the ripping “Remember Me [Side B]” to the guitar-drum blues showcased on “I Got Mine.” But the wide swath of Attack & Release gives way to new sounds and textures that open up the Black Keys’ musical palette considerably. “All You Ever Wanted” is less a lead-off track than a mission statement, alerting listeners that something strange and wonderfully new was afoot. Everything from the song’s reverberating guitar echo to the space allowing for Auerbach’s vocals to breathe suggests new musical territory. But it’s Danger Mouse’s Gospel-like organ, spread over the top of a flashy guitar turn by Auerbach and Carney’s cymbal splashing, that officially introduces the Keys’ newfound ambition.
If the grandiosity of “All You Ever Wanted” was treated as a one-off, it still would have been enough to qualify the song as being among the most interesting songs the Black Keys have ever recorded to that point. But the duo was only getting warmed up. Attack & Release starts with a bang, and the ripple effect reverberates outward over the course of the record’s remaining 10 tracks. Sometimes the changes arrive as small but impactful expansions on the Keys’ already-established sound; to wit, the haunting echoes hanging over tracks like “Strange Times” and “Lies,” or the flute on “Same Old Thing” that gives Auerbach’s patented fuzz riffing a funky Bossa nova feel. Other times, Attack & Release is marked by larger musical shifts. “Remember Me [Side A]” is the yin to its Side B counterpart’s yang, a sweet-but-eerie ballad that expertly meshes blues and soul with Danger Mouse’s flare for weird, hypnotic sounds. Then there’s the backwoods trip-hop of “Psychotic Girl,” a track for which there is zero precedent on the Keys’ past efforts. The record’s back end, meanwhile, foreshadows the more pop-oriented lean of the duo’s future efforts. It’s not hard to see where “So He Won’t Break” might fit on Brothers, or how the trippy mix of ‘70s soul and Neil Young on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” might have worked on 2014’s True Blue.
Attack and Release is the work of a band maturing its sound without ceding its more-radical impulses, making it the perfect record to bridge the Keys’ past over to its future. Auerbach and Carney learned about the virtues of collaboration, bringing in for the first time a host of guests and session players from experimental rock guru Marc Ribot to singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield who duets with Auerbach on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.” The Black Keys strove for something different, and their efforts were met with both critical and commercial success. Attack & Release netted the duo its highest chart appearance up to that point, landing at number 14 on the Billboard 200 Chart in its opening week. Critics lapped up the impressive, if unexpected, new direction the duo was moving its sound in. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Chris Willman praised the Keys’ seemingly overnight shift from minimalist blues cretins to studio wunderkinds, noting that the record’s “quirks enhance the power of the desolation at the Keys’ core, and prove that gut-grabbing and ear-stroking needn’t be mutually exclusive.” The cultural gatekeepers of Rolling Stone were also effusive in their praise, listing “I Got Mine” as the 23rd best song of 2008. The magazine would also retrospectively list Attack & Release 83rd on its list of the best records of the 2000s, the only record in the band’s catalog to make the ranking.
Critical and commercial success aside, Attack & Release seems lost in the broader conversation of the duo’s history. Now almost 17 years after their formation, The Black Keys’ career arc is still largely defined by the unfettered rock ‘n’ roll simplicity of its earliest records and the polished sophistication of Brothers, El Camino, and True Blue that drew the band into the embrace of mainstream audiences. Fans are largely devotees to one camp or the other, or both, but the duo’s fifth record doesn’t neatly fit into either. But sandwiched in the middle of the band’s past and its future, Attack & Release serves a more critical role in The Black Keys’ career trajectory. If Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory are the work of a pair of indie-rock brats and the duo’s latter work is that of A-list rock stars, then Attack & Release is the vehicle that got them from A to B. The six Grammys Auerbach and Carney share between Brothers and El Camino arguably aren’t theirs to claim without the daringness to try for more, something instilled in them through making Attack & Release. That might not make it the most widely adored record in the Keys’ cannon, but it might make it the most important.
“We met people like Brian Burton, like Tchad Blake, like Mark Neil — all these guys who make records that we like the sound of,” Auerbach told NPR in 2014. “We worked with them and slowly learned what it is we liked about these records that we'd loved all these years. And it takes a while to figure that stuff out, but we finally sort of cracked the code, and it helps us when we're in the studio now.”
Listen to Attack & Release