As with so many of the blues twosomes that grew out of the turn-of-the-century garage-rock explosion, the appeal of the Black Keys lay in the possibilities they found in the barest rock elements: one guy (Dan Auerbach) playing guitar and singing, another guy (Patrick Carney) pounding on a rickety trap set. For more than six years, the duo has hammered out a decent career from these basic elements, even amid growing criticism that they long ago reached the limits of their lineup.
Attack & Release, the Keys' fifth album, may be a reaction to those accusations of repetitiveness; it's a small step out of their little room and into something larger. For starters, it was recorded in a real studio, not in their Akron basement, where they made all of their previous albums. Second — and more crucially — it was produced by Danger Mouse, who began working with Auerbach and Carney on a planned collaboration with Ike Turner but turned that into a Keys album after Turner passed away.
Fortunately, on Attack & Release, Auerbach and Carney don't stray too far from their comfort zone, and Mouse doesn't insert himself too prominently into the band. For the most part, he subtly tweaks their guitar-drums formula, adding a few new sounds to their blues rock. Moog synths, banjos, and reed instruments fill the corners of "All You Ever Wanted" and "Strange Times," gently bolstering Auerbach's riffs without overwhelming them.
Perhaps the most dramatic departure is "Remember When (Side A)," which features Mouse's keyboards lasering in and out, somewhat distractingly. The Keys sound like they don't really know what to do with themselves, but they immediately follow it up with "Remember When (Side B)," which recasts the same song in their familiar dirty-blues style.
Still, Attack & Release too often drags, though not because of these new elements or too many midtempo numbers. Mouse very capably layers these old and new instruments into an intricately textured sound, but ultimately he can't coax the grit from Auerbach's guitar or the urgency from Carney's drums, which have defined the Keys' sound since their first chords. — Stephen Deusner