Review: The Black Keys – “El Camino”

Jesus, it's like it's like they had a 'Complete Idiot's Guide to Hipster Appeal' on their night stand.

The Black Keys’ seventh album warrants quite a bit of reflection on their career, and not just in the fact that this band has existed for all of ten years now and have released as many albums as they have, but how they’ve grown in this environment. Most notably, the Black Keys now have one more album on their oft-compared blues-punk, garage rock contemporaries, the White Stripes, who have broken up and left on a note of high concept art. The Black Keys, meanwhile, have stayed steadfast in their ways of producing records chock full of rough-edged juke and blues that is so traditionalist (even among the distortion and feedback), that even the keep-it-simple style the Stripes have become synonymous with looks complicated. But, much like the Stripes, they couldn’t go on making the same records forever, and upon achieving major label status (and releasing the terrific and ambitious, but still traditional, Magic Potion), they decided to make a giant leap forward and drop the true blues style for a poppier, yet somehow hazier sound, and pick up Danger Mouse as producer for Potion‘s follow up, Attack and Release. And with a bigger sound and a few trophies under their belt (and, yes, like Jack White, a move to Tennessee), the Black Keys embark on the follow up to their wildly successful album, Brothers.

And it’s from there that we tell the rest of our story (after the jump).

I have made my distaste, or general wariness, for Danger Mouse known before, and I will admit that I do not think he is as much an addition to a band or artist with an established sound. It may not seem like it, but he has a distinct style that affects the songwriting of the artists he works with that lends to a criticism lobby against the Black Keys themselves, that their songs all sound alike. Yet, they are still capable of creating albums that are greater than the sum of it’s parts. It’s a credit that has followed them from day one, since The Big Come Up, that you may not be able to pick out more than three or four songs from any particular Black Keys album, but man, is the album itself something!

El Camino is the first album to start right out the gate since Rubber Factory to have a specific feel in mind, and unlike the rest of the Black Keys work, this is strictly a party album. Sure, moments of artistic brilliance shine here and there, but the hip-shaking swagger of the track opener, “Lonely Boy,” puts it all on the line. But while the track explodes like their earlier tunes, it still shows that it is a kindred spirit with their last album, Brothers, by including a chorus of high-voiced women, and an electric organ that supports the guitar with a greasy wheeze beneath Dan’s sharp attack.

The very same can be said of much of El Camino being similar to Brothers in terms of orchestration, and this is to a fault. “Dead and Gone” is one of several tracks to carry the same soul vibe that carried much of Brothers, with the light and airy chorus, twinkling bells, and soft organ touches, but is less of a memorable tune. There are a few moments like this, that make me pause and think that it could be that El Camino is simply a depository of stuff left on the cutting room floor that didn’t make it to the final press for Brothers. While there’s nothing wrong with being in a similar state of mind when writing a shit ton of music, there’s something to be said for a quick follow up that may not be as fully as realized as its own entity.

Speaking of tracks being their own entity, “Little Black Submarines” is a true curiosity in the Black Keys’ list. It is rare that they ever employ an acoustic guitar for long, but here, it is center stage for an intro that gives way for a merciless and heavy blast of Patrick Carney’s big beats and fills, and a double downstroke guitar attack that (and I hate to say it, but it was my first thought), Jack White’s own bag of tricks relies on so often. All in all, it’s a song that, in parts, has the DNA of Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the White Stripes in it’s blood. It’s a strong tune that is stark and original, yet unafraid to wear some influence on its sleeve. Then, in contrast, the follow up, “Money Maker,” is pure vintage Black Keys, a gritty stomper that, I hope live, can break through the reverb of Danger Mouse’s production.

“Money Maker” is exactly the sort of track that makes me pause and think how much I hate Danger Mouse as a producer. Even while not being overbearing, his touches make such a difference that ruin a perfectly good song that could be simple, full of fucking machismo swagger like this one. And while the talkbox is an awesome tool for someone like Dan Auerbach, it doesn’t help that it’s against a whirling wall of sound in the background that distracts rather than enhance. Though, I will admit (begrudgingly) that whatever he does on “Stop Stop,” it is an annoyingly catchy song — an absolute head-nodder that may not be a great song to dance to, but it’s so full of good natured brightness, I could overlook those damn bells behind the melody.

While not a remarkable song on the album in and of itself, it’s worth also giving a little spotlight to “Nova Baby,” the penultimate track that, admittedly, is the Black Keys’ most danceable track. It’s another that connects to the soul and R&B qualities of Brothers, but beats along and follows the head-nodding qualities “Stop Stop,” so perfectly that it forces you to move, at the very least, your upper body. Yet, like most of the best tracks on here, it stops so abruptly, as if the Keys are afraid to lead a song up to a climax.

Grade: C+. By the time the album ends, the only real songs I can remember are “Lonely Boy” and “Little Black Submarines” — and that’s for better or worse, really, but certainly gives credence to the final track, “Mind Eraser,” which, again, would feel right at home with the tough soul of Brothers. Yes, I generally feel good having listened to El Camino, and I would have no problem breaking it out at parties, but unlike other Black Keys discs, there is something missing from this album that makes me warm up to it completely and want to call it an absolute success. That’s not to say I’m completely down on it; if Brothers were the debut album of the Black Keys, I wouldn’t call this a sophomore slump album — it is a fun, breezy album that brings the party.

But it may be that’s part of the problem with me, and me alone. Hell, any other critic willing to be more objective (and I’m not, clearly) might call this a ‘B’ or an ‘A-‘ at best effort. But there is something to be said about the Black Keys and the reputation they staked out early in their career: while the White Stripes (among others) was the preeminent blues-punk band of the early aughts, the Black Keys were the ones the master the sense of dark mystery, danger, and intimacy of legit bluesmen. I have no problem with a move toward becoming a pop-oriented band with a more popular sound, but I wish it weren’t weighed down in Danger Mouse’s sensibility to be so accessible as to strip the band of the grit so clearly at the heart of all of their best songs. It’s not the major label treatment, just simply the company that they keep.

Still, this is not an album that could, or should, spur debate among true fans. It is simply what it is, and that being a Black Keys album that, while it may not make you feel greatly one way or another, it is generally a solid piece of classicist rock — so get moving, and don’t be afraid to! This ain’t a major artistic statement, it’s the kind of rock you grab a brew to, and maybe dance to. The album may be titled “El Camino,” and the album cover may be of an old Dodge Caravan, but the parts combine into the kind of simple rough-and-tumble quality the actual Chevy El Camino represents, but the Keys want you to bring your friends along, too.

Advertisements

29 responses to “Review: The Black Keys – “El Camino”

  1. “…while the White Stripes (among others) was the preeminent blues-punk band of the early aughts, the Black Keys were the ones the master the sense of dark mystery, danger, and intimacy of legit bluesmen.”

    I will give this group a listen SOLELY based on that sentence!

  2. Little Black Submarines is my favorite! Very nice album!

  3. Damn it, and I was just told by my teacher that I had to get some Black Keys to complete my sort of grunge/metal compendium, which is accidentally incomplete.

  4. Absolutely love the Black Keys!!! One of the best artists to come around since the White Stripes (or any of Jack White’s amazing bands). I love their new album, but I gotta say that I miss the bluesy tones that are so strong in their earlier albums. Thanks for sharing : )

  5. I love the Black Keys and their retro sound. There is something about the sound that is really unique and makes me want to get up and dance just like the dude in the video!
    Great post (even if I would give the album a B+!)
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  6. I love the Black Keys! I can put Sinister Kid and I Cry Alone on repeat for days. I haven’t heard the entire new album yet, but I really appreciated this review – both how you’ve raved about and critiqued it. -Abi

  7. you should check out the Parlor Mob. totally rad rock and roll group. My favorite songs by them: After All, Tide of Tears, When I was an Orphan, American Dream…. basically both albums are killer from beginning to end.

  8. Well said! I have very similar feelings about this album. Feels way less intimate than Brothers and less gritty than the earlier albums. But hey, nothing wrong with a feel-good album from the Keys, right? Bravo on being freshly pressed. I’m following – you’ve got great taste! xx

  9. Love your wry wit! Keeping tapping those keys and penning good reviews. Come by and see me. Peace.

  10. love the BK’s!

    dudda du du…dudda du du

    Not sure how i feel about el caminos tho…

  11. Great review, man! The Black Keys are one of my favorite bands these days, and while this is no Rubber Factory and a lot more commercial than Brothers, I still dig it after listening to it ad nauseum for the past week. Really dig Mind Eraser, Gold on the Ceiling, Sister, and Stop Stop, but I hear your woes in regards to Danger Mouse. Wasn’t crazy about his involvement on Attack & Release, but this is nevertheless an upgrade from the last time they got together. Although if there’s anything to be said about this album, it’s that there aren’t a whole lot of bands out there who can still kick a good deal of ass by their seventh album like The Black Keys do.

  12. great review! i hadn’t read anything up to this point, but had my own opinion…which seemed fairly parallel to yours. thanks for sharing!

  13. Very cool blog you have here – awesome title and set-up! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  14. Amen. I especially like the last paragraph in the fact that it won’t spur debate amongst true fans…. everyone knew Brothers would bring the band to the spotlight: DangerMouse + 2 new guys = new formula and damned if they didn’t win some Grammy’s. I was taken aback by the fact that they made so many drastic changes to their group, plus the hip-hop fan in me was pleasantly surprised with Blak Roc, but I almost didn’t go to their show when they came to town – felt like the Brothers tour was the one to skip. But I ended up getting a ticket from a friend and they rocked their entire set, just like they had in previous years.

    It’s like this… what exactly is a band supposed to aspire to? Every group that takes themselves seriously wants to get to the pinnacle, and every successful band will have their own story. If there is something to be said about the Black Keys, they didn’t exactly rush to the top, and who knows how long they’ll last – I mean honestly, this album doesn’t have the nuts that Brothers had. But what’s the worst thing that can happen? They slump from the popular scope, and create Chulahoma 2? Or maybe drop Danger Mouse and start playing an amp out of a basement sink again? It really doesn’t matter… they’re not the typical rock group and kudos to them for making it.

    But, as a fan since hearing bootlegs of their shows and buying their used CDs for 3 bucks from a bargain bin back in the day, I must say I miss the old sound. I’m all for band’s progressing and experimenting, and I would say that they haven’t sold out quite yet, I just believe the pressure is on them now to create new stuff – which is probably why El Camino has an upbeat tempo to it and is being embraced as somewhat sub par. Let em smile for awhile and play it out, shit they’re not even coming to my city on this next tour, and they’ll be back in full force. Whatever that sound may be next……

    I do need to point out one more thing too… Danger Mouse could really step back a few years himself. He’s become a pop culture fiend, and his stuff has indeed slumped. Though he has a very unique style, there seem to be no limits to what he “thinks” he can do – the dollar signs flash from his eyes. A fresh break from the Black Keys would be nice, just for one album, that’s all I ask at this point.

    • Thanks for the kind words. But you’re dead-on about Danger Mouse. His unique style has sort of made him the AC/DC of producers — I know exactly what he’s going to do on a given track, and it’s going to sound similar to all the other songs he’d produced.

      Though, to be fair, aside from “Tighten Up,” Danger Mouse wasn’t on Brothers. But his influence has certainly been felt.

  15. I am new to Black Keys, that might be the reason I enjoyed the album.

  16. Good review, well written, fairly objective. Maybe a slightly lower score than I might have given it (if I were able to analyse albums enough to review them in public.) But you bring up some good points and things to reflect on.

    My wife and I have a game for Black Keys albums, its called “guess which song will be first featured in a commercial.” My money is on the chorus of Nova Baby.

  17. I agree with this review. I feel that The Black Keys have been stripped of their grit since their breakthrough Brothers. I wish it wasn’t this way but they’ve even said it themselves that they’re willing to make as much money as possible any way possible. I guess I can’t really blame them considering they spent years scraping change from the sidewalks of suburbia.

  18. Loved the review, and I totally agree, this wasn’t their best album, by a long shot. Definitely missing that edgy blues-rock sound they do so well. It’s too radio ready.

    • Same here. Like I said, there was a certain intimacy with the older stuff. But there’s nothing wrong with writing something ready for the radio. It’s a phrase I question: but wouldn’t it be nice to hear something you really like on the radio for once?

      Then again, there’s not really a radio market for this kind of rock anymore. Kind of puts a damper on being ‘radio ready’ to begin with.

  19. I don’t know about The Black Keys anymore, I just see them as two guys who just try to make catchy songs for advertisements these days.

    • I wouldn’t dismiss them that quickly. I was discussing how these songs would sound live, and I’ve come around to the idea that maybe the live touch is just what will change my mind about the album, as well as them.

  20. Thanks for the update

  21. Yes, I generally feel good having listened to El Camino, and I would have no problem breaking it out at parties, but unlike other Black Keys discs, there is something missing from this album that makes me (*not want to?) warm up to it completely and want to call it an absolute success. That’s not to say I’m completely down on it; if Brothers were the debut album of the Black Keys, I wouldn’t call this a sophomore slump album — it is a fun, breezy album that brings the party.-

    *I wasn’t sure if you would or wouldn’t warm up to this album?
    I enjoyed the review, almost bought this album on vinyl a couple days ago. What is your favorite Black Keys album?

    Also, great review. I got a sense of what the album is trying to accomplish. I may yet buy this and have a brew or two.

    Cheers!

    • If you’re looking for a brew paring, the album works best with something simple. Yuengling or Miller High Life/Miller Lite. It doesn’t expect any better.

      As for buying it on vinyl, it’s not my priority, but it would be a fun one. Tell me how it sounds!

  22. Uh oh. We’re complete opposites about this then. In my opinion, this album is epic. Even reviewed it on my blog (http://thechronicr.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/album-review-el-camino-the-black-keys/) and gave it a 10 out of 10. Nevertheless, a very honest review which is greatly appreciated by a reader of yours, i.e. me.

  23. Nice post!
    Can we use couple paragraphes for our site http://yeahiloveit.com ?

  24. Pingback: 2011: The Most Boring Year in Music. | Electric Comic Book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s