The Black Keys – El Camino

El Camino (2011)

B+

1. Lonely Boy 2. Dead And Gone 3. Gold On The Ceiling 4. Little Black Submarines 5. Money Maker 6. Run Right Back 7. Sister 8. Hell Of A Season 9. Stop Stop 10. Nova Baby 11. Mind Eraser

 

A savvy follow-up record. With “Tighten Up” and “Next Girl” and “Howlin’ For You” still ringing in everyone’s ears, the Keys had a fine line to toe in deciding to make a new record so soon after Brothers (yeah, a year and a half seems to qualify as “so soon” in this day and age. What happened to the days when the Stones would release three albums in a year?). Erring to one side—abruptly changing their sound again and alienating their new fans—might have turned out to be artistically wise but commercially dangerous, and vice versa for erring to the other side (making a blatant retread of Brothers). Talented motherfuckers that they are, they managed to keep to middle path by tweaking the Brothers formula just enough to keep things interesting, while remaining eminently recognizable as the same band that did “Tighten Up.” Ultimately, they come closer to treading water than they do to breaking new ground, so it’s hard for me to get as excited about El Camino as it’s predecessor. But these guys just don’t make bad records, do they?

OK, so, some things are the same and some things are different. They’ve retained Danger Mouse as producer, as well as the funky bass and electro-fuzz organ accoutrements that Brothers was based on. But they also toughen up by upping the rocker count, canning the slow soul songs and using more crunchy guitars while hedging closer to pop conciseness than thick soul grooves like the last time around. As such, they’ve been hyping El Camino as their “return to rock” album (a dangerous pledge, as we well know), but anyone hoping for Rubber Factory 2: We Don’t Make Rubber Here Anymore is being unrealistic and will be sorely disappointed. The old Black Keys are gone. Replacing them, for the time being, is something like a funky party rock band from space. Or, more concretely, what an early 70s T. Rex record might have sounded like if Marc Bolan was into, like, funk (and perhaps even a bit of reggae thrown in – check out “Hell Of A Season”). Not unlike Electric Warrior, El Camino takes these fairly basic boogie rock riffs and makes them sound alien and cool, primarily through Danger Mouse’s zombie choirs and echoey flying-though-space-reverb.

And yes, there are straight rock songs here. Start with the infectious party groove of lead single “Lonely Boy,” which is so fuckin’ groovy that it’s started a dance craze that’s sweeping the nation. It’s the garageiest tune here, as Danger Mouse takes most of the album’s most rocked up moments to sonically epic places, like the brawny chorus of the bluesy “Money Maker” or, most notably, the second half of “Little Black Submarines,” which starts as solo acoustic Auerbach and then explodes into pure 70s hard rock riffage. (Some people think this song sounds like “Stairway To Heaven.” It didn’t occur to me when I first heard it, which just goes to show you that it is in fact possible to not hear “Stairway” every five minutes by the simple act of turning off the radio). The best of the bunch is “Gold On The Ceiling,” which marries Auerbach’s strongest collection of riffs on the album with Danger Mouse’s full reverby bag of sonic magic.

Unfortunately, achieving such matrimony on the same song turns out to be a surprisingly uncommon feat on El Camino. Dan’s shift in focus from riffs to vocal hooks has taken place quite abruptly, and though there are plenty of catchy melodies here—especially the smooth soul pop of “Stop Stop,” on which Dan once again employs that irresistible falsetto of his—I find it strange that the guy who wrote “Thickfreakness” and “I Got Mine” and “Your Touch” didn’t see fit to pair a re-emphasis on crunchy guitars with a re-emphasis on great guitar riffs. Take “Dead And Gone:” great, fun, sing-along vocal hook, loud guitars – but no riff. Same with “Nova Baby:” catchy melody, no riff. Or “Run Right Back:” thumpalicious groove, nice sleezy hook, even some tasty slide guitar like the old days – but no riff. “Mind Eraser” has a riff, but the slower tempo lessens its effectiveness just a bit. But that’s certainly not a problem for the rest of the album, being so consistently up-tempo and all. Which is a very good thing – even though El Camino is only infrequently thrilling, it’s consistently fun. Which means they could’ve done a hell of a lot worse – but I hope it doesn’t take too long for the Keys to enter the post-Brothers era.



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