Danger Mouse vs. Danger Mouse. The Winner? You

We all know by now that DJ Danger Mouse rocketed to notoriety by remixing Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. The result was a pretty decent record called The Grey Album and it infuriated Mr. Z that someone would toss fresh beats onto the a cappella version of his album. You might be inclined to ask why Jay-Z would bother releasing an a cappella version of a hip-hop album if he didn’t want you to fuck with it. The bottom line, at any rate, is that The Grey Album will never see the light of day. It has been passed around by industrious bootleggers, but don’t expect it to come to your local FYE.

Danger Mouse has produced works for Gorillaz, collaborated with the likes of MF Doom, The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, and, of course, with Cee-Lo as the duo Gnarls Barkley.

Gnarls Barkley released “Crazy,” the catchiest single… um… ever in advance of St. Elsewhere, their debut. St. Elsewhere never lived up to the promise of “Crazy.” It wasn’t a dreadful album but it felt a little like a joke. It was just compelling enough to make my ears perk up when I heard that Gnarls was releasing a second album. So maybe they mean it after all?

The Odd Couple is a pop pleasure; it’s infinitely more melodic (if occasionally more melodramatic – “Open Book” is a little bit over the top) than its predecessor and it hangs together like a real album. It opens with the vague social concern song “Charity Case”, which is about as serious as the album gets. We can’t all be Billy Bragg, but you can throw Gnarls Barkley on at a party without killing everyone’s buzz. As much love as I have for Mr. Bragg, I cannot make the same claim about him.

Pound for pound, The Odd Couple has funkier beats, more interesting melodies, and more hooks than St. Elsewhere. I made it through St. Elsewhere about twice before I gave up on everything but “Crazy” (which the radio had already made me sick of) and the Violent Femmes cover “Gone Daddy Gone.” But I’ve been able to enjoy The Odd Couple several times now, and actually enjoy it more every time I hear it. It’s a testament to Danger Mouse’s talent that he can so adequately tailor his style to compliment his collaborators. He finds beats here that are the perfect backdrop for Cee-Lo’s high-pitched howling and the result is a light, fun listen unlike 90% of the pop music you can listen to today.

As if to prove that he can (and should) collaborate with anyone, Danger Mouse produced the new Black Keys album Attack & Release. It was originally to be a collaboration between the Keys and Ike Turner, produced by Danger Mouse. Turner, however, died before the sessions could be completed (cocaine is a helluva drug). The Black Keys were left with a handful of songs and a fantastic producer, and so they went to work putting together Attack & Release, arguably their best album to date.

I’ve been a Black Keys fan since Thickfreakness, which I listened to solely because it struck me as a righteously bold move for two white dudes from Ohio to name their album Thickfreakness. But it was a heavy motherfucker of an album, packed with some of the least watered-down blues I’ve heard this side of Hendrix. (The Black Keys have, on occasion, denied being a blues band – and they aren’t really – but the fact is, a lot of their songs are the blues and we really should be grateful. A lot of white guys have really  co-opted and fucked up the blues, but the Black Keys seem to have a genuine grasp of the looseness, loudness, and unbridled woe required to make good blues.) The Black Keys kept trucking along right up through Rubber Factory, where they really tried to expand their sound (let’s face it – there’s only so much you can do with two people in your band). And then came Magic Potion, an album with eleven tracks, just like Attack & Release, only Magic Potion feels like it’s several hours longer. You could hear Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wading through the sludge of their sound, trying to find more to do with drums and guitar, guitar and drums.

So along comes Danger Mouse with his bag of tricks and provides The Black Keys with a much-needed shot in the arm. Attack & Release owes as much to The Band as it does to The Black Keys’ usual blues influences and it is full of the sort of rich textures you can have when there are more than two people in your band – there are flutes, organs, contra bass clarinets (!), and a lot more harmony vocals on Attack & Release than on any previous Black Keys record, and while all that extra instrumentation can run the risk of giving you a bloated turd of an album, in the capable hands of Danger Mouse, it’s all sliced and diced together into a lean, mean, heavy, and excellent rock record. “All You Ever Wanted,” leads off the set, a pretty blatant signal that this is not the same ol’ Black Keys on Attack & Relase. Of course, the album would suck if it was all tender ballads and organ solos, so the Black Keys toss in some very expected jams like “I Got Mine.” But in the context of the album as a whole, even the songs that sound just like other Black Keys songs have a fresh energy to them. The Black Keys never needed to abandon their bread-and-butter stuff (loud guitars and crashing drums), but they definitely needed to put more meat on the bones. And Danger Mouse provided them with a great opportunity to do it.
Ordinarily, I’d frown a mighty frown on a band putting two versions of the same song on an album – I usually don’t care that you couldn’t settle on which mix was better. Not that interesting. “Remember When (Side A)” and “Remember When (Side B)” are a great exception, however. Forming the centerpiece of Attack & Release, these two versions of “Remember When” are about as different as they can be. Obviously, the lyrics are the same, but Side A is a plaintive, lilting ballad and Side B is a full-on rocker, stuffed with all the stuff I loved about The Black Keys in the first place. Hopefully the Black Keys will continue to collaborate and experiment in the future, or at least hire a few more musicians full-time.
For my money, The Black Keys is the better of this year’s two Danger Mouse albums (so far – he could and hopefully will give us another DangerDoom album before years’ end). It’s a fantastic rock record produced by a man with a gift for hearing the exact sound a band or singer needs and artfully producing it. But you could do worse than picking up both albums and deciding for yourself. Because when DJ Danger Mouse produces, the winner is always you.
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