Danger Mouse

Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

It’s a bit odd that for a band that got its start and first achieved fame as a blues band, that it wasn’t until their eighth album that anyone would call an album by The Black Keys “sad”.  Part of that is the nature of the blues: even when you’re writing about how life has done you wrong, the goal is to keep it from letting you stay down for too long.

Turn Blue isn’t a typical “sad” album however.   There is no overwhelming aura of depression or melancholy; it’s marked more by a sense of restraint and internal contemplation, especially compared to their most recent work (most notably the built-for-arena-touring El Camino and their crossover breakthrough Brothers).  Instead of outsized swagger and riffs, the album relies on intimate grooves and swirling psychedelic touches.  It’s definitely of a piece of their post-Magic Potion work (i.e., it’s not the down-and-dirty two-man grimey blues of their early work), but it’s examining a different aspect of that style.

The album kicks off with the fantastic “Weight of Love”, a slow-burner that begs for repeated listens–a desire that I’ve indulged in several times already.  A ballad that takes its time to gradually build over six minutes before carefully fading away, it serves as a great mission statement for the album.  The song signals the return to prominence of guitar to The Black Keys’ sound, with three separate, gorgeous solos from Dan Auerbach, culminating in a thrilling double-tracked ripper at the climax.  While the solos are definitely worthy of being singled out for praise, the song works so well because of the efforts of all the musicians involved.  The breakdowns to the bare grooves of the verses lead into gorgeous swells of the chorus and climax as instruments are added to the mix, and Patrick Carney’s fills in the solo mark some of his finest work to date.

[There originally was a YouTube clip of the song included in this post, but it has since been taken down.  We will attempt to post a replacement when one becomes available.]

The album maintains a mysterious, somewhat ethereal mood throughout, with 60’s/70’s soul replacing the blues and classic rock as the primary influence this time around.  It’s noticeable even on the tracks meant to get the crowd moving, like on the lead single “Fever”.  The keyboard melody is catchy, but there is a slight air of disturbed menace that gives the whole song a delirious quality, especially considering the lyrics.  Though it has escaped attention from most people, the ending should be given some special praise, as it does a great job of inverting the melody to build up the mild paranoia evoked in the song before falling apart at the end.

The blues influences haven’t completely disappeared, however.  “It’s Up To You Now” relies on a similar groove to The Stooges’ “1969” (with the addition of typical eighth-note drum hits from Carney to accent the end of each phrase), and the halftime breakdown features an especially sleazy guitar solo.  The ingratiatingly fun closer “Gotta Get Away” is the closest the band gets to big dumb classic rock, and it serves as an excellent epilogue to the seriousness preceding it.  Considering how easily it puts a smile on your face, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it ended up being a single down the line.

Danger Mouse contributes a lot of his signature touches to the album, but his production doesn’t overwhelm the group.  Some of his trademarks do show up, like the muted staccato bass, the subtle organ flourishes, and the spaghetti western-influenced strings (the last of which is most clearly heard in “Year in Review” and “10 Lovers”).  But the band has incorporated a lot of these aspects into their sound already at this point, and they never push Dan’s guitar and vocals away from the spotlight.  It’s clear that since Danger Mouse’s initial contributions to Attack & Release that the group has evolved into a different entity; at the time, it was a necessary injection of new blood, as the original formula had begun to deliver diminished returns (though I believe that Magic Potion doesn’t deserve the poor reputation that it seems to have received).  Though the sound of present-day Black Keys differs in many ways from the Rubber Factory and thickfreakness days, one can still feel the basic DNA of their sound still present in the music, that it’s simply exploring different sonic territory through their own unique lens.

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Over the Weekend (Apr. 14 Edition)

Tomorrow is a big day for Rust Is Just Right, because we’ll be releasing our long-awaited list of the Best Albums of 2013.  We’ll explain why we chose that particular day for the big reveal tomorrow, but just be content knowing that the day will finally be here.  Meanwhile we have a selection of videos to help you ease into the week.

Last week, Queens of the Stone Age released a music video of their latest single, “Smooth Sailing”, featuring Josh Homme on a wild night of partying with a group of businessmen.  As the old saying goes, beware of what karaoke may bring.  Now’s a good time to familiarize yourself with the song and the rest of …Like Clockwork, because we’ll have a review of their live show later this week, and QOTSA will certainly make an appearance in tomorrow’s Best Of list.  You could check out their performance at Coachella from this past weekend as well; Pitchfork has their performance as well as many others, so they’re worth checking out.

Eels also released a music video last week for “Mistakes of My Youth”, the lead single from the upcoming album The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett.  The full album is also available for streaming on YouTube, ahead of its release date next week on the 22nd.  It seems the band has stepped back from the happier, livelier sound of Wonderful, Glorious to a more delicate, winsome sound that E has favored on recent albums, but long-time fans of the band should be pleased.

Atmosphere just released a music video for “Kanye West”, their latest single from their upcoming album Southsiders.  It’s a fun Bonnie & Clyde story, with an unexpected couple, with a cameo from Slug as a cashier.

Yesterday saw an unexpected release from the Deftones, as they released a track from the Eros sessions in memory of their departed bassist, Chi Cheng, who died a year ago on Sunday.  “Smile” was the first song we’ve heard from the sessions, which were put on hold after Cheng had gone into a coma after a car accident.  Though Chino Moreno had himself posted the song, the record label took it down because of copyright issues; we’ll see how long the link I’ve posted lasts.

We also got a brand new track today from The Black Keys, who posted the title track to their upcoming release Turn Blue today.  It’s a groovy ballad, reminiscent in my mind of their cover of “Never Gonna Give You Up” and featuring that trademark Danger Mouse bass.

And finally we have Sigur Rós performing a cover of the song “The Rains of Castamere” for the Game of Thrones soundtrack.  While the song is nice, I get a bigger kick out of the band dressed up in costume for the show itself.  I can’t wait to catch that scene when it airs.

Over the Weekend (Mar. 3 Edition)

It’s time to settle into another week, and what better way to capture the futility of another Monday than a pointless list from Rolling Stone?  This time, the “fearless” editors decided to rank every single song that Nirvana ever played, and decided that a slideshow of 102 clips is the best way to accomplish this.  Sure, some of the anecdotes are a bit fun, but mainly I’m surprised that someone listened to everything in the With the Lights Out boxset.

I'm sure there's a better way to utilize the asterisk.

These songs were ranked in some arbitrary order by Rolling Stone

As technology and the marketplace has evolved in music over the last decade, new business models have emerged, and not always to the benefit of the artists.  For example, a lot of emphasis has been placed on streaming services in recent years, and while some artists have endorsed this development, others have argued strongly against it, including notably Radiohead and The Black Keys.  We plan on doing future explorations of this argument in the future, but keep in mind this bit of evidence offered up by Zoe Keating, who provided a breakdown of where her income from her music came from in 2013.  Also, something else to keep in mind when you hear mindless preaching about how new technology will save us all: Camper Van Beethoven had a higher net profit than Twitter last year.  $645 million greater.

In a bit of great news for those who enjoyed our essay on The New Pornographers, Under the Radar has an interview with Carl Newman talking about their progress on a new album.

Speaking of our own work, it looks like we’re not the only ones who felt the time was right to take a look back at Danger Mouse’s career so far.  Stereogum has an “Annotated Media Guide to Danger Mouse” that you may want to check out.

SPIN seems to have the British band beat down this morning, with news about Coldplay’s new album (due May 19) and the premiere of the Arctic Monkeys’ new video for “Arabella”.

And finally, what better way to feel better about the week ahead than a reminder about the genius of This Is Spinal Tap.  ShortList has a list of the greatest “real life” Spinal Tap moments.  Some of these are probably worthy of a Jeff Goldblum laugh.

The Danger Mouse File

With the recent release of the new Broken Bells album After the Disco, this is as good a time as any for people to become even more familiar with the different projects of Danger Mouse.  If you’ve listened to music in the last ten years, you’ve come across several songs produced by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and more likely than not own at least an album filled with his contributions.

If there is one thing that I can pinpoint as a signature of the Danger Mouse Sound, it’s the idea of the old made new again, or perhaps the retro in a modern context.  This is not done in a showy or bombastic way–at no point in a Danger Mouse song is he calling to the listener’s attention THIS IS AN OLD STYLE/CONCEPT.  There is nothing post-modern about his use of old styles, and certainly no ironic commentary.  He’s not just throwing old records into a blender and spitting out reprocessed old music; you won’t find a dubstep version of a Hollies song, for example.  Though he first got most people’s attention with his Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album, he’s moved well beyond throwing modern beats behind old soul samples. It’s much more subtle, which is why it’s worked so well over multiple iterations. 

There are certain reoccurring elements that can be found in the Danger Mouse sound.  The one that I usually pick up on is a certain bass sound–quick, staccato single notes, and often muted to dampen the sound a bit.  There are also certain idiosyncrasies to his drumming/percussion, namely in his snare sound and his use of the ride cymbal, often matched with a late 50’s/early 60’s rock beat.  And you are also likely to hear certain organ flourishes that give an additional color; it’s usually not a dominant sound, but present enough in the background that it is a significant part of the atmosphere of the song.

Danger Mouse hasn’t just been consistently excellent in the past decade, he’s been quite prolific.  That means there are probably a few albums of his that you haven’t gotten around to listening to, or may not even have known existed.  I mean, I was looking at this list and saw a few albums that I owned that I had no idea he had helped produce.  It could just be confirmation bias speaking, but as I’ve listened to them in writing this article, I keep going, yeah, that definitely has that Danger Mouse sound.

One of those albums is The Good, The Bad & The Queen, which has unfortunately been forgotten about a bit over the years.  It’s the rare super-group album that’s worth listening to (and it definitely is a super-group: Damon Albarn of Blur, Simon Tong of The Verve, legendary drummer Tony Allen, and holy shit Paul Simonon of The Clash).  While each of the component parts are brilliant, they unite to create a singular album that is different than anything else they’ve ever done.

Another overlooked album is the debut of Electric Guest, Mondo.  I’ve heard the single “This Head I Hold” a bit on the local alternative radio station, but it never made much headway nationally.  It very much has the kind of groove found in Danger Mouse’s work with Gnarls Barkley, namely from the bass and from the classic pop-rock drums, just with a different singer.

Speaking of Gnarls Barkley, even though everyone knows their breakout hit “Crazy” and a lot of people picked up their debut album, their follow-up The Odd Couple never caught on like it should.  There was no single track that stood out from the pack like “Crazy” did, but the album was stacked from top-to-bottom with fantastic songs.  “Run”“Going On”, and “Surprise”  were all incredibly fun tracks filled with energy that should pack the dancefloor.  “Blind Mary”  was a bouncy track that managed the difficult task of being positive yet melancholic.  And then there’s the devastatingly heart-breaking ballad, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?”, with it’s absolutely perfect video.

2008 was an absolutely banner year for Danger Mouse, creatively speaking.  He had three of my top ten albums of that year, an honor that means absolutely nothing to most everyone.  In addition to The Odd Couple, there was his work on Beck’s Modern Guilt and The Black Keys’s Attack & Release, albums which I will argue are among the high points of each artist’s careers.  Beck is of course famous for shifting genres with each album, and he slides in smoothly into the Danger Mouse style.  Beck always had a great touch in finding bits and pieces of old styles and repurposing them in modern contexts, so it should have been no surprise that he and Danger Mouse were simpatico.

The Black Keys were a different story.  They had an easily identifiable trademark sound of ragged two-man blues/rock, and it was unclear how another element could fit in without disrupting that aesthetic.  So often the production touches were at the margins or added for just little bits of color–a perfectly timed organ hit here, a little jazz flute there, etc.  It was enough to push the group into new creative directions and eventually into greater commercial success.  While some may grow tired of how The Black Keys have come to dominate rock radio today, I will always appreciate it when great songs like “Little Black Submarines” come on, even if they ruin some of its beauty by knocking out a whole verse and not allowing the song to properly develop (a rant that I will save for a later day).

It’s a lot better than being constantly subjected to Nickelback.

But perhaps the most interesting entry in the Danger Mouse discography is the project he did with composer Daniele Luppi, entitled Rome.  It’s basically a soundtrack to a fake spaghetti western, and it’s really quite a blast.  The album does a great job of mixing in instrumentals with more traditional “songs”, featuring Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals.  In the end it fulfills the goal of any project like this: it makes you want to see the movie that would have this soundtrack.

If this has done anything, I hope it makes you at least somewhat excited when news of another Danger Mouse release comes out.  And checking the calendar, you should be feeling that in approximately…three months.  Enjoy.

Review: Broken Bells – After the Disco

It’s been amusing to read reviews of the new Broken Bells album, namely the amount of focus that multiple critics place on the name of the record.  It brings to mind memories of middle schoolers putting together slap-dash book reports and riffing as much as they can on the title and back page in their oral presentations.  It makes me wish that I had some social media pull to start a trending hashtag of #CrappyBookReports.  I can understand how certain bands spend a lot of time and effort thinking that the album title really encapsulates what they were going for on the record, but you know, sometimes it’s just a convenient label (and just something taken from a particular song).

So, in other words, I’m not placing much stock in any grand statement in After the Disco.*  Instead, I’m content to enjoy it as a pleasant 45 minute record of mid-tempo rock.  The highs aren’t particularly high, and I wouldn’t say there’s a killer single hidden in the tracklisting somewhere, though “Holding On For Life” was enough of a hook to get me excited to actually buy the album.

One thing that the album does a great job is throwing enough curveballs that seemingly straight-ahead tracks usually in a place that you don’t expect.  It makes for a great listening experience, but hell to figure out which song exactly it was that you were digging.   Opener “Perfect World” starts with a great, motoring groove (almost a disco beat!), and then ends with a great half-time coda that brings the mood back down to Earth (maybe I should give critics more credit–they saw the album title AND listened to the first song).  That said, songs where the tempo picks up like “The Changing Lights” and “Medicine” stand out a bit, but they never fully lift off.  It’s most clear in the song “No Matter What You’re Told”–if there was just a little bit more urgency and just a couple more beats per minute (and a snare sound that was a bit more lively), this would be a great crowd-pleaser.  But the restraint is clearly by design, so it’s difficult to pin all the blame on stylistic choices like that one.

The biggest problem is with the concept of “Broken Bells” itself.  Both James Mercer and Danger Mouse have done excellent work on their own, but the combination of the two is puzzling at first glance, and there’s not really enough in their music to take away any potential doubts.  Mercer already has an authoritative voice in The Shins and is a suitable vehicle for most of his musical ambitions; Danger Mouse has produced great tracks, but he could probably need a stronger vocal presence than Mercer.  The music never really rises above its side-project nature; the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

But there is something to be said for just good music; bands don’t always need to justify themselves.  In that respect, I’m perfectly content on buying Broken Bells albums and will probably continue to do so in the future.

*For the record, I always thought that After the Disco would have been a perfect title for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!

Covered: “Reckoner”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

One of the highlights of Radiohead’s classic album In Rainbows was the song “Reckoner”.  It may seem like a contradiction when I put it this way, but if I had to describe it, I’d say it was a beautiful, haunted, jazzy piece.  The first instrument the listener hears is the super-clean guitars with their rich, bassy tone, a style used throughout In Rainbows but used to maximum effect here (I’ve quipped to friends before that it seemed that Radiohead forgot that there were other pickups on their guitars besides the neck pickup, but it works perfectly in this context).  The stuttering rhythm of the beginning arpeggios are complemented by a shuffling drumbeat, which gives the song a right mix of propulsion as well as unease.  The use of the ride cymbal also adds to the haunting quality, giving an instrumental haze through which Thom Yorke’s ethereal vocals filter in and out as he pleads in a gorgeous falsetto.

So it would seem like it would be difficult to match the greatness of this song, right?

I would say that while the original is a great song, I believe that the Gnarls Barkley cover surpasses it.  The instrumentation is faithful to the original, right down to the tambourine part as played by Danger Mouse.  One small difference is that instead of strings, the band opts for some distortion on the guitar, a substitution which works great in the live setting.  But what sets this version apart from the original is the amazingly emotional vocal performance by Cee Lo.  He gives this song all the passion that it didn’t even know it needed, turning Thom Yorke’s pleadings into a forceful demand.  It’s a stunning, powerful performance, and is the key to what makes it one of the best covers I’ve ever heard.

***Side Note: I was actually at the concert in 2001 at The Gorge where Radiohead debuted an early version of “Reckoner”.  It sounded pretty much nothing at all like the song we all know now.