Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Is Is

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Is Is (4/5)

The latest release from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a mere five song E.P. that is somewhat reminiscent of their pre-Fever to Tell output. If while listening to Is Is you get the feeling that these songs sound like natural descendents to the YYYs early releases, like their self-titled debut and Machine, there’s a good reason for such suspicions: these songs were actually written around the same time as those early E.P.s. For their latest release the YYYs grabbed a bunch of older songs and re-recorded them. Unlike the rest of us, when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs look under their couch cushions instead of finding loose change they just happen to find a handful of unused songs.

Working against their more recent, more polished work, the latest YYYs release feels as if the whole affair was bound by a bunch of rusty bolts. While the songs have more of an edge than the YYYs’ indie-pop numbers, they’re hardly a retread of their early days. The stuttering pace of “Rockers to Swallow” sounds as if the drums and guitar would collapse if Karen O’s snarl didn’t whip them along all the way to the finish line. There’s a sense of space that wasn’t present in YYYs’ early fits of noise, which makes it even more important for the trio to play off one another. For his part, Brian Chase takes an opportunity for more complexity and drum fills, Nick Zinner expands his oeuvre with some psychadelia on “Isis,” and while avoiding any conventional melodies, Karen O showcases her strengths as a front woman. Is Is sounds like a sort of missing link between the YYYs’ early songs and their first album.

Considering that these songs were written long before this E.P. was recorded, I don’t think the YYYs are necessarily hinting at a new direction. From “Art Star” to “Cheated Hearts” the YYYs have already proven they shriek as well as they can sing, but it is comforting to know that they haven’t completely given up on shrieking. Here’s hoping that instead of plotting their songs along a pop/noise spectrum they realize there doesn’t have to be much of a difference between the two.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Black Keys - Attack & Release

The Black Keys - Attack & Release (4/5)

The Black Keys’ latest release was originally intended as the collaborative product of DJ Dangermouse, Ike Turner, and the title band. The man responsible for “Crazy,” a couple of white Midwestern bluesmen, and the guy who almost sent Tina Turner rolling down the river was an unlikely grouping to say the least, and I for one was curious to hear the inevitable clusterfuck of an album. Unfortunately, before this marvelously disparate musical collision could get on its way Ike Turner passed away. Who knew decades of drug, alcohol, and spousal abuse could end a life so early? Ike left this plane of existence at the age of seventy-six.

I half expected a DJ Dangermouse mash up between The Black Keys and Li’l Bow Wow (or, does he go by Bow Wow now?), but thankfully Dangermouse decided to mostly stay out of the way and let the Keys do their thing. If you were to suck all the studio trickery out of Attack & Release you would still have a collection of some damn fine songs. What Dangermouse ends up doing best is accentuating the open space on the slower songs. He adds a psychedelic atmosphere that fits perfectly with the classic rock underpinnings of The Black Keys’ songwriting, which has always been a few steps closer to Cream and Hendrix than Robert Johnson.

“Same Old Thing” is perhaps the only song where it feels as if Dangermouse is unsure of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s songwriting and unleashes some unnecessary Gil Scot Heron inspired flutes just to gum up the works. The result is unfortunately more than a little distracting. Dangermouse is most effective on “Psychotic Girl,” an acid trip on the bayou that’s enhanced by wraithlike backing vocals and eerie piano notes. Auerbach provides appropriate paranoia-by-moonlight lyrics and infuses even the slower songs with a strong sense of melody, something that had been sorely missing on their previous record. While most Black Keys albums feel as if they just stop regardless of the whether the last song is an appropriate end point, here “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” is a note perfect closer. The slow-dance pace and female backing vocals add just the right amount of effervescent heartbreak.

I’ll put myself on record as being disappointed with The Black Keys’ previous album, Magic Potion. After their superb (and still best) album, Rubber Factory, The Keys sounded listless and without momentum. The Ohioans needed a new direction. Attack & Release sounds like a true follow up to Rubber Factory, and even though I can’t help but miss their minimalism, I fully welcome their rediscovered sense of adventure.