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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008

The Black Keys Meet ZZ Top

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   You aren't anybody if you aren't recording with the Black Keys.

  Producer Rick Rubin, himself a somebody, recently tapped the band to back Billy Gibbons for a few songs on ZZ Top's next album. Gibbons and Rubin join R&B legend Ike Turner and super-producer Danger Mouse on a growing list of The Black Keys' recent collaborators.

  Rubin's choice of The Black Keys as ZZ Top's backup seems obvious in hindsight. There are blues punk bands that only salt their music with the blues, and then there are the bands that bathe their albums in the blues. The Black Keys are the latter. For a band that's often compared to The White Stripes, the difference is, well, black and white. The Black Keys, like ZZ Top, are a blues band playing a different genre of music, not a punk band looking back at another era. No wonder Rubin believed these modern hipsters could pull ZZ Top's wily old-timers back toward their original sound.

  "[Rubin] wanted them to go back to their old-school thing they used to do," explains Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach.

  That means taking away the drum machines that ZZ Top has fallen back on and reviving their classic, organic sound. It's something Auerbach says he looks forward to.

  "The first three ZZ Top albums, I absolutely love," he says.

  Organic, of course, is a relative term. For years The Black Keys recorded organic sounds to a degree that would make Rubin cringe-sans producer and at home, in all its lo-to-mid-fi glory. Only with their last album, Attack & Release, did the band return to the studio. All it took was that offer to work with Ike Turner.

  Turner had been working on an album with his own celebrity producer, Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame. Danger Mouse, in turn, chose The Black Keys to write and perform the backing music.

  "We spent two and a half months on it and we only got three songs finished with Ike's vocals and everything," Auerbach says. "That's why we wrote our own record; we figured we could finish that and then get back to work on the Ike thing. And after we finished our record, Ike passed away."

  But some kind of relationship had already grown between Danger Mouse and The Black Keys. It wasn't much of a social relationship-"We never really met him," Auerbach says, "but we kind of knew him through the phone and Internet"-but whatever it was, for the first time, the band ventured into a studio to record an album with a producer.

  "It was fun to record with a producer and get a positive experience," Auerbach says. "We had tried before, and had a couple of bad experiences and that's why we stayed away. Some engineers won't let you touch anything and don't like any experimentation in the studio. This time it was really, really great."

  The bigger, studio sound on Attack & Release is immediately obvious, but the other effects of recording outside the comforts of home are more subtle. Danger Mouse didn't just change the way The Black Keys mixed the album, he shaped the music itself.

  "He was like another musician, really," Auerbach says. "He'd make suggestions and try things out musically on keyboard or piano. He was like a co-creator of some of the songs."

  Attack & Release sports a few songs that will also appear on the Ike Turner album. Those who buy both will get a chance to see if Auerbach can out-sing an icon on "Lies" and "I Got Mine."

  If the Black Keys' collaboration with Turner marked the end of a great career, Auerbach must hope that collaborations can also mark the beginning of great things to come. On Sept. 16, his label will release With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, the debut album from 19-year-old singer Jessica Lea Mayfield. Auerbach produced the album, expanded Mayfield's basic melodies into full arrangements and played nearly all of the instruments. He also more or less discovered her (although it was actually his father who handed him her EP while Mayfield was resigned to shows at coffee shops).

  Mayfield's music is dark and moody, both in music and lyrics. "Not unlike Nick Cave," Auerbach says. And, although the album has been in the works since Mayfield was 16, Auerbach promises that she only seems too young on paper to sing about death and Jesus. Mayfield also adds vocals to "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be," Attack & Release's closing track.

 And why shouldn't she? Everyone who's anyone works with the Black Keys.

 The Black Keys headline an 8 p.m. concert at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Sept. 5.

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