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.