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Akron's Black Keys hook up with Gnarls Barkley producer for their 5th album

BY ERIN PODOLSKY • April 13, 2008

Load up your iPod with Black Keys songs, shut your eyes and press play, and you'd never guess you were listening to a couple of twentysomething white dudes from the home of the Goodyear blimp -- that's Akron for you Uniroyal loyalists. You're hearing a blues racket that could easily be confused for the vinyl snap-crackle-poppin' jangle of a mid-century Mississippi field recording.

But the evidence is right in your ears, an irresistibly tangy combo of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach's wholly unexpected vocals (at least coming out of the mouth of a guy who looks like your typical indie hipster) and Patrick Carney's drum work.

The Black Keys have been doing their blues-rock thing since they were teens, finally putting out their first album, "The Big Come Up," in 2002. Largely sticking to that gritty, old-school approach, the duo has been building momentum with audiences and critics ever since. That's why the sonic chances the band took on the just-issued "Attack & Release" -- and the left-of-field collaborator they chose to work with -- have caused such a buzz.

Not surprisingly -- we are the native soil of that other postmodern blues-rock duo, the White Stripes -- the Black Keys have always gone over well with audiences in the D. On Tuesday, the band plays the 1,700-capacity Royal Oak Music Theatre, with the show a likely sellout. While the Keys' new disc is much more robust when it comes to instrumentation and studio trickery, the live show will remain just Auerbach and Carney -- their guitar, drums and voices.

"Attack & Release," the band's fifth full-length disc, marks a welcome evolution in sound, being the first time they used an outside producer. And they didn't choose just any old soundboard hack. They went with maestro Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), who helmed the Jay-Z-versus-Beatles mashup epic "The Grey Album," but is probably best-known as one half of soul-pop chart-toppers Gnarls Barkley.

A sonic sculptor of hip-hop, old-school soul and all sorts of production wizardry, Danger Mouse is not exactly thought of as having a down-'n'-dirty blues sensibility. So how did these unlikely musical minds find their way to each other?

It started with an Ike Turner tribute that Danger Mouse was producing. He wanted the Black Keys to contribute.

"We said 'Yes, let's do it.' So we started working on it, sending a bunch of songs, and Ike was putting his vocals and guitar on top of it in L.A. with Brian," says Auerbach. "We worked on that for just over two months and realized it was going to take a long time. We let them know we needed to take a break, put the Ike thing on the back burner because we really needed to make a new record. And he said cool, he totally understood -- but then he expressed interest in wanting to produce our record if we wanted him to."

It made Carney and Auerbach a little nervous since they'd always been rather insular in their composition, but given Danger Mouse's track record and their growing relationship with him, they decided to go for it. "We never had a producer before, but since we'd been working with him for two months on the Ike thing we got to know him. So we just said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "

What happened wasn't the normal working relationship between a superproducer and an established group looking for a new direction. Danger Mouse encouraged the Keys to keep doing their thing, only better, thicker, more elaborate. More instruments, more tracks, maybe a teensy bit less analog whine. What resulted was a record that remains true to the stripped-down, grinding-gears style of blues that the Black Keys have been doing for years, but with added layers of intrigue and new effects to discover on repeat listens.

"Brian was just like another musician. He wasn't bossy or overpowering. He told me with my vocals that he liked the way I sing and said whether or not I get a take it's really going to be up to me. He didn't really want to have any say in it. He's sort of got this hands-off approach. He'll step in when he thinks he needs to, and it was cool to have someone else there to keep us focused," says Auerbach.

"When you're in the studio and you're really concentrating and you're spending day after day after day there you can sometimes get into a rut mentally. That's when I think a producer really comes into play."

The Black Keys found themselves in just such a rut with the track "Psychotic Girl," a song with a great sliding, bassy loop that moves around Carney's skins and Auerbach's crumbling asphalt vocals with a snaky malevolence. "We'd had about five different versions of that song and he really loved the song, but we decided to just do something different. He made a little loop, just to really give us a tempo. And I thought that turned out great," says Auerbach. "Right after he did that it just sort of opened the floodgates, the song was finished just a couple hours later."

The Black Keys' crank-it-out ethos and big song catalog is quite a treat in an industry where bands frequently wait three or four years between albums. Whether they'll work with an outside producer again remains to be seen, but the studio is already calling them again. With "Attack & Release" now on shelves -- the fifth disc in seven years -- Auerbach says that he and Carney's notebooks are already brimming with new material and they're just about ready to cut another record. What it will sound like, or who they'll work with remains to be seen, but the output is something they view as a necessary part of their career.

"Bands used to put out two records a year, you know? We're already planning on our next record. It's what we do. We love it. It's fun for us to get in a studio and record. It's what we live for."

Contact freelance writer ERIN PODOLSKY at erin.podolsky@gmail.com.

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You can never go wrong with basic black


Is it just us, or have dark times descended on the music industry in more than just the bottom line? We're talking about band names going Black.

The Black Keys didn't exactly start the trend. (Remember Black Flag? No? How about Black Sabbath?) But they're more than happy to take credit anyway, tongues firmly in cheeks.

"We feel lucky because we were the first band to ever use 'Black' in our name. But everyone that's come after that, it's flattering to us. We don't mind," jokes singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach.

Just so you can keep your Black Kids straight from your Clint Black, here's a primer on the bevy of acts who like to keep the lights off:

The Black Angels: The psychedelic group from Austin, Texas, releases its second album, "Directions to See a Ghost," on the Internet on Tuesday and in stores on May 13. The group's first album was called "Passover." Sensing a theme?

The Black Crowes: Chris Robinson and company just released their first studio album in seven years, managing to peak at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. Not bad for a group that seemed to be heading into has-been territory and had essentially broken up in 2002.

The Black Dahlia Murder: Detroit's own death metalcore band tours steadily and has a great fan base. BDM will be at the Majestic Theatre on June 20 to kick off the Summer Slaughter Tour.

Black Dice: Experimental, psyched-out noise rock at its finest from Brooklyn, N.Y. The aesthetic is a little hard to explain -- two parts "Pong," one part dirty joke. But their latest, "Load Blown," is well worth a listen.

The Black Hollies: More psychedelic rock, this time by way of New Jersey. This mod-inspired foursome will play Bohemian National Home on May 4.

Black Horse: The Brooklyn-based duo mixes heavy-metal thunder and garage-rock lightning. Was scheduled to play Hamtramck's Belmont Bar this past Friday, the same week its new album hit stores.

Black Kids: The Jacksonville, Fla., band has been garnering huge buzz over the past six months for the band's Robert Smith-inspired music and lyrics. Beware, the '80s are back, baby! At the Magic Stick on May 8.

The Black Lips: Punkers who love to play, they scratched out a cool dozen shows at SXSW in 2007 and are about to go out on tour with Detroit's (or is it ex-Detroit's?) own Jack White/Brendan Benson-led Raconteurs. Both bands will appear at the Fillmore Detroit on June 7.

Black Milk: Detroiter Curtis Cross is one of the city's rising hip-hop stars and has worked with pretty much anybody who's anybody in the Motown rap scene, able to put out equally nice beats and rhymes.

Black Moth Super Rainbow: Folky psych-rock with band members that go by names like the Seven Fields of Aphelion and Power Pill First, BMSR has opened for other bands with a bit of a nutso pop edge such as the Flaming Lips. They've just been signed to Waxploitation, home of Danger Mouse.

Black Mountain: The Vancouver, British Columbia, indie band released its second album in January and will play Coachella in a few weeks. The group rocks hard and has even opened for Coldplay.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: The band has been a favorite of rock hipsters since the turn of the millennium, veering from psychedelic blues-rock to a more twangy approach and then back. Plays a special show at Rick's American Café in East Lansing on Tuesday and then at the Orbit Room in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

The Black Tide: The more typical "Black" band -- loud, angry, nasty metal and more metal. Black tees, long hair. Debut album "Light From Above" was released in March and was followed by a thrashing performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." With two screaming guitars, a bass and a drum kit, the group has had its "Rock Band" close-up and not one member is yet 20 years old. At DTE Energy Music Theatre on Aug. 9.

Erin Podolsky

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