Returning after the success of their wildly popular and Grammy winning album, Brothers, The Black Keys had some lofty expectations to meet when they announced the release of their new album, El Camino. Everyone knows these guys by now. Gone are the days of their underground fame and gritty, off the culture-grid existence. Much like the sudden boom of Kings of Leon, The Black Keys had been around for a while before the masses realized the talent they had to offer - groove-oriented garage rock that these two musicians from Ohio have mastered.
Unlike Kings of Leon, after their fame had taken off, The Black Keys did fall full victim to the “popification” of fame, curving their sound to stay more poppy than the garage blues that got them to where they are today. If anything, El Camino reigns in the poppiness and sets it in the right places while fully relying on their bread and butter: uptempo catchy riffs, booming yet steady complementing percussion, Auerbach’s perfectly molded contemporary blues voice, and the smooth stylish production we have come to expect out of Danger Mouse.
By now I'm sure everyone has heard the single to the point that it is an afterthought. Make no mistake though, “Lonely Boy” is catchy, yet contains a particular driving force that allows the groove to never be lost throughout the song. A much appreciated and not overworked single, it’s a great lead-in for anyone attempting to discover this album.
The pace never lets up with the second track, “Dead and Gone.” The echoing chorus provides the song with more depth and an epic feel, all constructed around Carney’s simple yet scintillating pounding and Auerbach’s endless bin of fantastic grooves and riffs. Throughout this album I've noticed how great Auerbach sounds; the emotion in his voice during every pleading and ascending chorus really gives even more emotional depth and soulful tension to their songs than usual.
One of my favorite tracks on the album thus far is “Gold on the Ceiling.” Here we see a perfect balance of smooth appealing hooks followed by the hard and dirty crunch of guitars. Each instrument and voice track is perfectly mixed, and the expansiveness in their songs, such as “Hell of a Season” and “Mind Erases,” can be directly attributed to Danger Mouse’s production. This is the third album he has collaborated on with The Black Keys, and he’s even taken songwriting credits this time around, while The Black Keys have been equally involved in production. This has developed into one of the more successful yet underrated partnerships between producer and artist we have seen in recent times.
Even when the frenetic pace of the momentous grooves are slowed to a crawl, the quality never recedes. “Little Black Submarines” is nothing short of a hidden gem nestled between the sweeping and unrelenting riffs found throughout the rest of album. Auerbach’s poignant lyrics carry the emotional weight of the song, complemented by an acoustic guitar. In the middle of the song we get a great example of what Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page used to call the “Light and Shade” effect. The song exhibits both sides of the band’s musical nature, allowing the music to develop and spread out from its original mold. The tempo then switches from acoustic to electric, employing an eerily familiar type of chord progression, which I hope doesn’t bring another lawsuit from Tom Petty’s people. The song ends in a fashion completely unrelated to its beginning, reaching a crescendo with the same lyric phrase of, “A broken heart is blind,” only with a wilder flavor, as the sound resonates with each slam and crunch of guitars and drums. Truly one of the best songs on the album.
With such an uptempo feel and the type of music it is, the album does have a tendency to run together with its sound. On the first listen I wasn’t overly impressed, as far as The Black Keys album standards go. However, the more I listen and allow my brain to differentiate between songs, sounds, and particular grooves in each composition, the more my appreciation and love for this album grows. Some hardcore fans will stay with their staunch belief that their earlier albums were their best. I feel that with El Camino we get the best of both phases of their musical evolution. I like to think this album has a more uptempo Attack and Release feel to it (while I still really liked Brothers, it happens to be my least favorite album by The Black Keys... Go figure). And with the smooth and jazzy production elements first provided by Dangermouse on Attack and Release, the album allows for just the right sense of gritty, good old Black Keys riffs.
I know their popularity cannot be revoked, and I’m not going to step into that cynicism mode where I wish they were still relatively underground and not winning Grammys. The truth is, they have gotten more precise and experimental in just the right places, keeping their roots in mind while journeying on their own evolution of sound. These guys are such a refreshing breeze blowing through the music scene that it’s hard to look down and criticize what they do. Simple, yet so particular, and with a penchant for keeping their sound fresh seven full albums later... Here’s to you Black Keys...
Favorite Tracks: "Gold on the Ceiling", "Little Back Submarines", "Hell of a Season"
Reviewer Bio - Tim Rosini is part of the editorial team at Onlinerock team. Having a background in English literature with a concentration in creative writing, Tim found himself working for various magazines and websites after moving out to the west coast last summer. Having the ability to adapt his focus from business writing to creative fiction he has found a great place to exercise his passion for music on the onlinerock website.