Attack & Release
THE BLACK KEYS
We knew that, sooner or later, The Black Keys would stretch their wings beyond the hardscrabble, home-recorded blues-rock of their first four CDs and make an album in a real studio, with a real producer, with instruments augmenting their threadbare guitar/drums format. That album is Attack & Release, and while it's not a betrayal of the Akron duo's visceral ethos, it can't help but dilute the seething, sometimes harrowing, intensity of their sound. Previous Keys releases seemed as if they emanated from some forbidden, otherworldly bog; this one sounds like it was cut in a studio.
For sonic oversight, they turned to Gnarls Barkley beatmeister Danger Mouse, who, to his credit, did not foist a pop-synthetic approach on singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. Rather, he fleshed out the tracks with organic elements: thick organ beds, analog synths, plunking banjo, subtle horn parts and some spectral background vocals.
The Black Keys have distanced themselves from drone-like Mississippi blues, which provided their earlier work much of its uniqueness, and homed in on a model that's more classic rock. The songs are more fleshed out and thus less primal (and often less catchy). Auerbach's ragged soul moan is still moving and expressive but is often cloaked in excessive echo or effects.
Although the disc includes a handful of big-riff rockers that get the blood percolating, the most effective songs are the last three, where the band appears to fully embrace a more pop-soul flavor. The two midtempo pieces and one ballad feature the most fully realized melodies on Attack & Release and would seem to bode well for the act's continued maturation.
Artistically, The Black Keys were pretty much duty bound to venture into new territory — they had plumbed their original aesthetic for just about all it was worth — but in the process they've dialed back the excitement. 3 stars —Eric Snider
Recorded over a sold-out two-night stand at Wembley Stadium last June, this live CD/DVD combo captures the U.K. trio in its element — all prog-rock bombast and self-indulgent electronica. Ringleader Matt Bellamy, his voice as affected as ever, struts his way through shades of T-Rex, Queen and ELO ("Knights of Cydonia," "Supermassive Black Hole") before putting an almost mod cabaret twist on the Nina Simone classic "Feelin' Good." Bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dom Howard have their share of masturbatory musical moments, worshipfully captured in high-def glory. The two-disc set is slickly produced, with throbbing audio and heavily stylized, bleached-out visuals that make Bellamy and the boys' color-coordinated showboating pop. There's a certain charm to the unapologetic glam postures, and if nothing else, fans will eat this up. 3 stars —Amanda Schurr
By the mid-'90s, Dolly Parton had been reduced to a boob-joke punch line, known more for her cartoonish image than immense musical talent. In 1999, though, Parton left MCA and released the Grammy-winning Grass Is Blue for the independent Sugar Hill label, where she remained through a couple more near-classic albums steeped in traditional mountain music and 2005's misguided '60s covers collection, Those Were the Days. For her Dolly Records debut, Backwoods Barbie, Parton goes with her first mainstream country outing in nearly two decades. The results are mixed. Self-penned numbers like the toe-tapping "Better Get to Livin'" — which features the humorously delivered line, "Well, I'm not the Dalai Lama" — is a fine slice of slick, contemporary country. But covers of Fine Young Cannibals' "Drives me Crazy" and Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears" are pointless and annoying. 2.5 stars —WT
Trouble in Dreams
On his eighth studio album, Dan Bejar settles in with the lineup he assembled for 2006's Destroyer's Rubies. The follow-up finds Bejar, known in recent years for his founding work with indie darlings the New Pornographers, at the top of his game — again. Lyrically and musically, Trouble treads fine, predictably offbeat terrain: poetic non sequiturs sung in Bejar's androgynous, Bowie-meets-Dylan whine over painterly, sometimes meandering arrangements. "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night's Ape)" is a lengthy epic befitting its name, while "The State" jangles along in its creator's private glam-folk universe. Among other highlights: the wistful pop of "My Favourite Year," quirky ballad "Foam Hands" and "Blue Flower/Blue Flame," in which a characteristically coy Bejar teases: "A woman by another name is not a woman/ I'd tell you what I mean by that/ Maybe not in seconds flat/ Maybe never." 3.5 stars —AS