Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Black Keys - Attack & Release, Chulahoma


If you're a regular to this blog, you might have read this post from earlier in the year: (in which, I-VII, gabbagabbahey attempts to write about the blues). If not, I warn you it might be a bit experimental, but it is the previous and only piece that I have written so far about the awesomeness that is the Black Keys, and sets the context for this post.


Attack & Release (2008):

I literally found out about this less than a week ago. A new Black Keys album! And it's really good! And it comes in a gatefold LP!

Attack & Release is the out-there blues-rock duo's fifth full album. Without putting forward too much of an opinion about the last two albums (Magic Potion and Rubber Factory) because to be honest I don't know them all well, the Black Keys might be considered due a return to form. The thick, heavy rhythms of their debut, The Big Come Up, or the equally thick, viscous ferocity of its follow-up (and my favourite) Thickfreakness, beckon.

However, Attack & Release throws a curveball in that regard. Mostly because, in effect, they've added a third member in the form of extra-famous producer Danger Mouse. When you have a band based on two performers - although the size and volume of their sound, as is so often the case, belie those limitations - adding further sounds is naturally going to do big things. The result on Attack & Release is a Black Keys album which not only has the mesmerising guitar and drums of their previous - and their very best - releases, but also unwinds it in a whole different sonic space.

Attack & Release has soul; soul in a whole different way. Whereas Thickfreakness and its lieutenant, The Big Come Up, relied on Patrick Carney's "patented recording technique" "medium fidelity", Attack & Release - "recorded by Paul Hamann on the recording console that he and his father built together in 1973" - occupies much of the same sonic space but fills out the corners with matured, modern and above all subtle textures. The grit still shines through.

Today, the AV Club's Steven Hyden gave the album a lukewarm B- in his review. But his analysis - if not his enthusiasm - is not misplaced. The pertinent section is as follows:

"So what does a Danger Mouse and Black Keys collaboration sound like? At its best, it sounds like "Psychotic Girl," which pares the band's usual riff-heavy bluster down to a slinky guitar, sleepy drums, and Dan Auerbach's lustful moaning, and lays it on a bed of disembodied voices and psychedelic banjo plunking. Here, Danger Mouse helps deconstruct and reassemble The Black Keys into something fresher than the sum of their overly familiar parts. Attack & Release falters on the rockers, which sound like the same old Keys, for better or worse"

The A.V. Club: The Black Keys

Attack & Release is an entrancing album; it has a veneer of sounds - pianos, banjos, harmony voices, allegedly (I read somewhere) a theremin - which also seep, like a decidely non-viscuous fluid, deep into the stripped-down rock of the band. Whether, outside of these astounding production values, the Black Key's traditional sound is any better than usual, I'm not sure. I'm not sure it's entirely important either.

The Black Keys have returned to form, as an out-there blues band taking their music in powerful new directions. Compared to Thickfreakness, their aggression is much lessened (though the layered production absents itself from the searing minimalism of, say, 'I Cry Alone') while the emotion is relatively muted, if no less tense. Attack & Release is a fine album, the finest I've heard from this band in a while.

The Black Keys - myspace ('Strange Times' and 'Lies' from the current release)


Chulahoma (2006):

In the - for me - barren period surrounding Rubber Factory and Magic Potion, this was the album (technically, an EP) that kept my faith in the Black Keys. Don't get me wrong, Rubber Factory has some great songs, but it didn't make me feel anything in the way the Thickfreakness did. Chulahoma - a collection of six songs originally by the fellow Fat Possum bluesman Junior Kimbrough - however, was sublime and intense in its quality, and in a way that I've rarely heard from any other record. Except perhaps Spiderland.

Chulahoma makes a psychedelic blues counterpart to the ethereal blues of Attack & Release. Six songs, some quite long, taking you some seriously good, 'pure' guitar blues. If you like the stripped-down minimalism of a lot of post-rock stuff, like Slint or Human Bell, this might be recommended. Basically, it rocks.

It was by accident I saw the vinyl of this - I was looking for somewhere selling Attack & Release that wasn't HMV for €21.99 - there wasn't - and this was pure serendipity.

The cover, a psychedelic painting of a gun, you can see in a slightly garish version on the original post, comes unadorned with writing and on soft matte card. Inside, the paper sleeve is covered in a grayscale pattern: grey and cream, it looks somehow like something from 1930s Down South, like something from the world of Carnivale, and likewise the record labels themselves, with the curls of the Black Keys logo and the surrounding rims.

The notes contain the same recollection by Dan Auerbach of first hearing Junior Kimbrough's music as I posted before but continues:

"Well, I'm a musician now. It says so on my passport. Though it's gotta be more than just that. I feel like a man blessed with some sort of mind and heart connection to the vibrations I find in the music I love. Junior allowed me to feel that way, to open that once hidden doorway. My family had steered me in the right direction and pushed me when I needed it but the walls came tumbling down when I locked into Junior's groove. I'll be forever grateful, forever in awe, and forever indebted to Junior Kimbrough. Someday, I'm gonna meet him in the city and I'll shake his hand and maybe he'll play a few songs for me."

-Dan Auerbach

David "Junior" Kimbrough was born in 1927 in Hudsonville Mississippi. He worked at the John Deere dealership in Holly Springs for 18 years. On weekends he played guitar and ran "Junior's", his club. Unfortunately, Junior had died before Dan Auerbach could make the journey. "Junior's" burned to the ground, but his music and his 36 children are still thriving.

If you want to hear from the man himself check out:

Meet Me In The City

The Black Keys - Chulahoma

Chulahoma on eMusic


d. said...

I'm looking forward to checking this out. I've heard a lot about the Black Keys through the years, but have never had the inclination to check them out ... until now.

gabbagabbahey said...

good, I should maybe post Thickfreakness sometime... it's by far the best place to start with them I reckon, and it's they're most 'punk' album - I got into via Epitaph - as well as being anarchic in a way that, to be honest, A & R isn't.

but I've got lots of other cool stuff to post in the meantime. I must get round to listening to your podcast, too..