Indie gets the blues

By MATT ASHARE  |  April 23, 2008

That may be overstating things. Then again, if the White Stripes can do it, why not the Gossip? But they aren’t the only band the White Stripes have carved out a mainstream niche for: the Black Keys have spent most of their six years as a kind of trad-blues foil to the more adventurous Stripes. Their roots were so firmly planted in the Mississippi hill-country sound of the late Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside that the Keys originally scored a deal with the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. Two years ago, however, they hooked up with Nonesuch, the imprint Warner Bros. seems to have set aside not just for jazz and classical but for graduating indie artists like Wilco and Stephin Merritt. The Keys’ fifth album, Attack & Release, debuted at #14 in the Billboard 200 albums chart when it came out on April 2.

Attack & Release grew out of what was supposed to be a collaboration between the band — singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — and the late Ike Turner, who died on December 12. Brought in to produce, Danger Mouse adds to the disc’s mystique. There are no overt traces of Turner on the album, and there’s nothing in the way of a hip-hop beat to suggest that Danger Mouse fiddled with the band’s rough-and-ready approach. But rather than banging out hot and sweaty riff after hot and sweaty riff, Attack & Release opens with a slow, moody crooner (“All You Ever Wanted”) built on a foundation of acoustic guitar and a subtle beat with an eerie vibrato guitar haunting Auerbach’s voice like a ghost. Before it’s over, the song builds to a big, organ-filled climax and Auerbach’s electric starts humming, as though in wait for the Zeppelin-style hook that anchors the next track, “I Got Mine.” Elsewhere, Auerbach adds some backwoods banjo to “Psychotic Girl,” an uneasy track embellished with a queasy choir, tinkling piano, and an effects-laden slide solo that reflects Danger’s deft hand with tone and texture. So does the murky “Remember When (Side A),” which has spare background vocals by bluegrass singer Jessica Lea Mayfield. Flute, of all things, turns up next to Auerbach’s snaky guitar line in “Same Old Thing.” The disc ends on a soulful note with “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” — one of the few tunes here that might have been written with Ike Turner in mind.

The Kills (who play the Paradise on April 30) come at the blues from a very different angle from that taken by unabashed enthusiasts like the Black Keys or a band on a mission like the Gossip. This is especially true on Midnight Boom (Domino). For VV and Hotel, the blues, like punk, is more about a mood — a dark, foreboding mood — and an attitude than a particular riff. Theirs is music with roots in Exile and the Velvets but also Royal Trux and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Like Bonnie-and-Clyde rebels, they revel in danger and romance — “I want you to be crazy cuz you’re boring baby when you’re straight,” VV sings on “Cheap and Cheerful,” an electro-punk blooze rocker with programmed percussion and little more than a pulsing bass sound courtesy of Spank Rock’s XXXchange, who produces.

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Related: The Gossip, Out, loud, Photos: Foo Fighters + Foster the People + Muse + more at Lollapalooza 2011, More more >
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