Those dang kids have mucked everything up. It used to be easy to separate the hippie bands from the hard rockers, the indie-alternative darlings from the classic dinosaurs, the exploratory jazz trios from the shrieking noise-rockers. Time was, you could guess the band from the crowd forming outside the club. Now it could be the same freaks waiting to hear Queens of the Stone Age; Medeski, Martin and Wood; or Blue Öyster Cult. (Actually, scratch that: If it's Blue Öyster Cult, you'll know. Some things never change.)
Expect the Black Keys' new release, Attack and Release, to muddle things further. The Akron-based guitar-and-drums duo is known for back-to-basics, riff-heavy blues-rock. On their fifth album they've thrown a curveball by enlisting Danger Mouse as producer and occasionally pairing with multi-reedman Ralph Carney and guitarist Marc Ribot. Not that the Keys have left the sledgehammers in the toolshed — rockers like "I Got Mine" and "Remember When (Side B)" are still heavy. But the disc leaves its mark with trippy, minor-key broods like "All You Ever Wanted" and "Remember When (Side A)," tracks that push toward a nexus of stoner rock, Americana, and gutbucket blues. The Keys added instrumentation (there's even — gasp! — bass guitar here), in addition to further-flung concepts, such as the verse-chorus contrast of "Strange Times," which veers from fuzzed-out riff-and-roll to a memorable pop chorus with ominous synthesizer strings.
Nobody is advocating a return to the days when Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive and Parliament's Mothership Connection wouldn't dare share shelf space. Truth is, genre bleeds have unarguably led to some great music — Battles' progcore, Wilco adding Nels Cline's guitar skronk — as it has on the Keys' Attack and Release. But in the interest of shorthand, the following checklist separates your rock from your jam, your jazz from your dinosaur rock, and your alternative from everything else.
Signature element: Scattered audience members sport tie-dye; trippy laser light show emanates from stage.
This, unfortunately, means nothing anymore. Sure, you could be at a Phil Lesh and Friends show, but you might be watching Tool (tie-dyes underneath leather jackets are still tie-dyes). Or you could just be zoning out on the psychedelic backdrop at a Mars Volta show.
Signature element: Extended guitar solos and songs veer between one- and two-chord vamps.
You are most likely at an Allman Brothers show, or some third-generation variation thereof (maybe that's Warren Haynes sitting in with New Monsoon). But check Pollstar to be sure — has Dinosaur Jr. reunited again? Is Built to Spill doing another three-night run at Slim's?
Signature element: Band covers Radiohead; audience members bob heads appreciatively.
You are probably watching progressive jazz trio the Bad Plus tear into its version of "Karma Police" — the group blurs partitions between jazz, rock, and jam bands by appearing at festivals like Langerado and Bonnaroo. Of course, covering Radiohead has become so de rigueur that you'd better take a closer look to make sure it's not Michael Stipe playing "Lucky," Moby tackling "Kid A," or another young jazz-piano titan, Brad Mehldau, interpreting "Everything in Its Right Place."
Signature element: Band gleefully tears into classic rock riffs without a hint of irony; audience members make devil horn hand signs.
Nowadays this description could fit almost anybody. You may be watching Southern rock revivalists Kings of Leon. You could be witnessing Vancouver stoner rockers Black Mountain. This may actually be the real thing if you have found yourself at a Thin Lizzy show (yes, they're still around). You also might, of course, be at the Warfield, soaking in the raucousness of the Black Keys.