Across their four-album catalog, Akron blues-rock duo the Black Keys have built up a healthy and loyal international following purveying a basic rock 'n' roll formula: singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach's big fuzzy blues riff and world-weary vocals, grounded by Pat Carney's big stomping backbeat.
The two also caught a bit of luck as their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, was released at a time when one couldn't spit near a rock club without moistening a member of a hip indie rock duo.
Though Auerbach's bag of blues riffs is apparently bottomless, by 2006's Magic Potion, even the most ardent fan had to wonder what other sounds were in the band's arsenal.
Previous albums have contained hints of other facets, such as the mournful ballad I Cry Alone that closes Thickfreakness, and the rootsy You're the One from Magic Potion.
But after recording their previous ''medium-fi'' records in various Carney basements around town and an old rubber factory in Ellet, the two realized they had pushed their own abilities to the limit and decided to enlist a producer, an engineer and a real studio for album No. 5, Attack & Release.
The producer is Grammy-nominated knob-twiddler Brian Burton a k a Danger Mouse, who has become a hot commodity for his work with Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley and the infamous Grey Album, for which he mashed together tracks from the Beatles' White Album with a cappella raps from Jay-Z's Black Album.
On the surface, it's a seemingly disparate stylistic matching, but it was Burton, already a fan of the band, who contacted the Keys to write and record some tracks for a proposed project with Ike Turner. The Keys submitted three demos. Turner's death last December shelved that project, but it also provided an opportunity.
The engineer is veteran Paul Hamman of legendary Suma Studios in Painesville, where albums by Pere Ubu, Ben Folds Five, the James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad and many others were recorded. The result is Attack & Release, and it is the band's most interesting collection of songs and sounds, a record that works best when enjoyed in its 39-minute, 11-track entirety.
The band describes the process as a collaboration, and Burton's touch is all over the record, with Moog synthesizers, organs, banjo, bass and probably more overdubs on one album than band has recorded in its entire previous career. Guest contributions come from Tom Waits/Elvis Costello sideman and respected outre guitarist Marc Ribot, and another former Waits sideman, Tin Huey horn man Ralph Carney (who's also Pat Carney's uncle). But unlike some other hip-hop/pop producers such as the Neptunes or Timbaland, Burton doesn't dominate or attempt to force his sound (which to his credit can be difficult to define), but instead adds colors to the band's palette.
All I Ever Wanted opens the disc, a banjo-laced ballad that slow-boils with a sparse back porch country feel, before a big organ-drenched coda that recalls the Band. It's a sign that this won't be your standard Black Keys record. But its follow-up, I Got Mine, one of the tracks submitted for the Turner project, gets right back into familiar territory with a midtempo blues riff and Carney's elemental groove, until the noirish midsection with synth bleeps, percussion and a spooky chorus of ghostly ''ooohs.''
The uptempo and catchy Nuggets-flavored Strange Times, debuted at the band's December show at the Akron Civic Theatre, should have no problem finding its way onto the playlists of college radio stations not named WZIP. On the funky Psychotic Girl, Auerbach melds banjo with Burton's slinky bassline (played on an actual bass!) and barroom piano while he moans about another mean mistreatin' mama.
The Keys have become pretty adept at woe-is-me ballads, and Lies (another track reclaimed from the Turner project) shows Auerbach at his most melodramatic, moaning ''I wanna die without pain, I wanna die without pain / all this deception I just can't maintain / the sun moon and stars in the sky / it'd hurt me too bad if you said goodbye. ''
The album's latter half is relatively mellow and features the disc's only misstep, the underwhelming and static Same Old Thing, which is thankfully offset by the minor-key twang of the midtempo So He Won't Break.
A few tracks find the 29-year-old Auerbach pining for the simpler times of yesteryear. The dreamy Remember When (Side A) — which also has a fuzzy garage rave-up counterpart that opens ''Side B'' — recalls the relative simplicity of young love. On the decidedly unbluesy Oceans & Streams, he carries the weight of his world on his shoulders, and wonders why his true love no longer reciprocates on album-closing ballad Things Ain't What They Used to Be, which features young Kent-based singer Jessica Lea Mayfield and a lovely tremolo-laden guitar solo.
Assuming the Firestone High grads continue to make records, Attack & Release probably will be a clear demarcation line in their catalog, when a pair of scrappy young blues-rockers from Akron grew into scrappy, slightly older, more versatile songwriters from Akron.
Adding space and shading, catchy choruses and some good old-fashioned chord progressions to the blunt sonic gut-check of most of their previous albums should help keep them interesting to the restless ''song of the month'' ears of young fans. Some, content with the boyish charm and perfected indie-blues stomp of their earlier material, may not immediately take to the album's mellower flavors and fleshed-out arrangements. But Attack & Release is not only a necessary step forward in the Black Keys' musical development; it also shakes off the inertia that crept onto Magic Potion without introducing any dramatic stylistic changes.
The two say they would like to release another album later this year. Though it will presumably be without Burton at the controls, hopefully when they reconvene in Carney's new professional-grade Akron studio, they will retain some of the adventurous spirit the three inspired in each other.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758.