The Black Keys

Attack and Release (Nonesuch) -- 4 stars

The alchemy that gave birth to Akron blues-rock duo the Black Keys’ fifth album, “Attack & Release,” may seem unlikely. Since their 2002 debut, “The Big Come Up,” the Keys have been the standard-bearers of self-produced, self-recorded, basement-tape rebellion. Their high-water marks, 2003’s “Thickfreakness” and 2004’s “Rubber Factory,” distilled their blues formalism and lo-fi aesthetic into a highly evolved and deeply primal sound. But in fall 2006, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were approached by eccentric producer-auteur Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse)—best known for his work in Gnarls Barkley—to collaborate on a project with rock legend Ike Turner on the latter’s comeback album. Turner passed away in late 2007 before the project could be completed, but the relationship catalyzed “Attack & Release.”

As their first album recorded in a professional studio, with an outside producer, or with additional musicians, “Attack & Release” has all the trappings of a sonic leap forward. While it never satisfies as fully nor succeeds as thrillingly as the band’s earlier work did, the album explores a fuller, more dimensional sound that only promises greater things from the Keys in the future.

It certainly shows that the band could have used the help of a producer like Danger Mouse during their holding pattern, 2006’s “Modern Times.” While that album was a self-conscious retreat from the more accessible pop architecture of “Rubber Factory,” its simplistic, riff-driven rock renounced the ambition and verve of previous material.

More than any past recording, “Attack & Release” utilizes a classic, almost theatrical album structure, and while previous albums simply opened and shut, here the band almost seems to be telling a story. The opening track, “All You Ever Wanted,” ambles like southern folk through a warm, strange, watery atmosphere, before building strength and catapulting skyward into symphonic ecstasy. The song’s coda grips urgently, with organs piling on climbing guitars, then slips away, ghostlike. Before there’s time to process the transition, the Keys start storming again, with the sinewy, unhinged rocker “I Got Mine.” “Strange Times,” probably the most effective example of the band’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, alternately crunches and swoons, with ethereal wails and flourishes interspersed between Auerbach’s explosive riffs and throaty bellow.

“Lies” may be the most maturely-constructed song on the album; a dramatic, tumbling mood-piece, it feeds on the catharsis of Auerbach’s howling refrain, with Danger Mouse’s production giving the song space to swell, breathe, resolve, and disappear. Even so, the album’s conclusion, “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” is its most startling and triumphant success. With the help of young vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield, not to mention additional organ and guitar support, Auerbach seems to mourn the tattered remains of an old love with a kind of self-denying defiance: “It doesn’t mean a thing to me, / ’Cause it’s about time we see, / Things ain’t like they used to be.” A man of Auerbach’s age doesn’t accrue that kind of weariness without losing a piece of something important. And whether he knows it or not, the song feels strangely applicable to the album as a whole.

Still, there are moments where one longs for the old Black Keys. The album’s structure tends to draw attention to weaker moments, like the aptly-titled “Same Old Thing,” instead of burying them in the helter-skelter guitar chaos of a more traditional Keys album. For all the bells and whistles Danger Mouse hangs on “So He Won’t Break,” it doesn’t have the redemptive fury or persuasion of early Keys throwaways. The disparity between the band’s two incarnations is never clearer than on the back-to-back versions of “Remember When,” coyly labeled “(Side A)” and “(Side B)”: the former is a slow, quasi-psychedelic wash, while the latter is the echo of the old guard—a blistering, electroshock guitar blast virtually untouched by Danger Mouse. Quite frankly, it’s all the better for being left alone.

But that’s the exchange “Attack & Release” makes: innovative song craft for raw power. The band is arguably past its creative zenith, but it’s a relief that a necessary progression forward took place before another album in the fashion of “Modern Times” left them totally inert. Danger Mouse brings new ears and a new context to the band, and for the most part they embrace it and execute it well. But it’s difficult not to hunger for the shaggy growl and feedback-warped abandon of their finest work. Whether they take this extra momentum forward to future work remains to be seen, but if not, “Attack & Release” will still stand as a strong and adventurous experiment for Akron’s finest.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.