The Black Keys – El Camino (4.5/5)
The commercial success of the Black Keys’s previous album, Brothers, came out of nowhere for a number of reasons. First, as a blues-rock duo from the “flyover state” of Ohio, the Black Keys hardly seemed destined for the Billboard charts. Second, the Black Keys had been laboring diligently in indie-world for so long that for most it seemed impossible that they would finally break out of those cloistered confines of thick rimed glasses and absurdist facial hair and into a broad audience. And, finally, Brothers served as an intriguing departure from the Black Keys’s usual sound, which normally consisted of them playing nothing more than guitar and drums that were then recorded in what sounded like a tin can. Instead, Brothers took cues from hip-hop production and included plenty of stylistic detours, including vocalist, Dan Auerbach, singing in a falsetto. Perhaps the success of Brothers shouldn’t have seemed like such a fluke. After all, years of listening to the songs of the Black Keys in credit card commercials may have softened up America to their sound, and as much as the production on Brothers seemed out of step from some of their earlier albums, the further emphasis on drums and bass is hardly a losing proposition on commercial radio.
So, if Brothers seemed like an unexpected win for the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, then the follow up album, El Camino, seems desperate to argue that their time in the spotlight isn’t over. Where Brothers was an expansive trip through many of the Black Keys’s outer stylistic influences, El Camino is a tightly structured album designed to deliver one pop thrill after another. The first salvo of songs, “Lonely Boy,” “Dead and Gone” and “Gold on the Ceiling,” prove to be an apt mission statement for the album. Each song is catchier than the last and impossibly danceable. The entire album attempts to keep up this high wire act, placing one potential single after another, and at times it feels like listening to a “best of” compilation rather than a proper studio release. Some might miss the minimalist charms of their early work, while others might yearn for another stylistic departure like Brothers, but for those who are merely looking for a good time, you’ll find it on El Camino. Besides, there are still interesting genre amalgams, from gospel and soul derived call and response to fat glam-rock beats, and, after all, writing eleven radio ready songs is hardly an easy task.
For El Camino, the Black Keys returned to producer Dangermouse, who also helmed their 2008 album Attack & Release. Since then Attack & Release has come to be known as the red headed stepchild in the Black Keys’s oeuvre. In hindsight it’s an obvious transition album, and, even if every track isn’t successful, it now seems like a necessary move on their way to recording Brothers. I’m happy to say that Dangermouse’s flourishes are more effortlessly folded into the Black Keys sound. On Attack & Release it too often felt as if the Black Keys had written solid songs that were dragged down by extra instruments and production tricks that were haphazardly bolted on. Here, Dangermouse’s contributions seem like a natural extension of the band, a backing chorus here, an extra guitar line there, and maybe a little more bass. In fact, despite the two principle members of the Black Keys, it’s quickly becoming impossible to refer to the band as a duo. El Camino cements the Black Keys’s place as stadium ready stars, and if the album often feels like an effortless victory lap, then it’s a well deserved one.