Album Review: The Black Keys ‘El Camino’
I’ve heard a lot of people say that El Camino doesn’t sound anything like The Black Keys other work. I disagree. From a musical standpoint the same core elements remain, they just feel as if they’ve been flushed through a different filter. That being said, I’m not sure I could picture any of the tracks from El Camino on any of The Keys previous releases.
Earlier albums all had moods, if not themes. On Thickfreakness and The Big Come Up Auerbach lent a hungriness and immediacy to a voice that had still yet to become his own, sampling a buffet of bluesmen while growing in confidence as an artist. By the time Rubber Factory dropped, the dynamic duo had developed enough to harness and control those minimalist blues and put them to work at their behest. They owned it.
After Magic Potion hit the airwaves in 2006, it felt as if that initial formula had run its course. That’s not to say the album didn’t contain its share of worthwhile tracks. “You’re the One” and “Black Door” are two of my personal favorites along with the addictive crowd-pleaser “Your Touch.” But the band seemed at a crossroads: remain content with a rampant Midwestern fan base and pockets of diehards across the country or…explore.
Enter Brian Joseph Burton, AKA Danger Mouse, who had ascended into relevance around the same time as The Keys with his release of the Godfather of mash-ups The Grey Album. Burton, Ike Turner and The Black Keys set off in 2007 to work on a collaboration of epic buzz worthiness. Midway through the recording process though, Ike passed away. As the legend goes, from Turner’s ashes rose the foundation from which The Keys and Burton built their most critically-acclaimed album to date: 2008’s Attack & Release.
The beauty of this album lay in its ability to refrain from alienating a base that had come to love The Keys delta-influenced, garage sound, while at the same time allowing them to kick the door wide open to new listeners. Then, rather than attempt to recreate this new achievement, the duo took a breather. A separation in 2009 brought forth Auerbach’s Keep it Hid, backed by Texas-bred, up-and-comers Hacienda. An album, that Carney argues he had no prior knowledge of. Ticked off and startled by the potential loss of his musical soulmate, Carney scrambled to form his own side project, Drummer, releasing Feel Good together later that same year.
However, The Keys quickly patched things up during Carney’s legendary break-up with Denise Grollmus. (Her side of which is detailed in a Salon.com piece entitled “Snapshots From a Rock n’ Roll Marriage”) The duo emerged in Brooklyn to collaborate on, of all things, a hip-hop album produced by Damon Dash of Roc-A-Fella fame. Blakroc featured a who’s who of underground hip-hop’s past and present. Though the album achieved moderate commercial success, the buzz was most definitely back.
By the time that Blakroc was in the can, so too was Carney’s marriage. Once again, this time after the death of a relationship rather than the death of a producer, The Keys rallied for a breakthrough achievement. Still suffering from their hip-hop hangover, Brothers brought ear rattling bass lines, immediately addictive hooks and the first addition of new musicians, combining them into a break-up album of epic proportions. And we all know everybody loves break-up albums. Here, Auerbach served as the scorned, rage-infused voice to his partner’s brutally dissolved marriage. The album was everywhere. You couldn’t change the station on the television or radio without hearing it.
The rest as they say is history. The Black Keys are now bona fide rock stars, complete with the requisite trio of Grammies and mammoth sales. It’s always a mixed bag sharing a band that you’ve seen grow since infancy with the masses, but as I said in my review of their show at Indianapolis’ The Lawn at White River:
“Rather than harbor resentment for the yuppies that only know The Keys from their most recent work Brothers, I choose instead to embrace it. This is the music that I want America to listen to. This is the music that I want the radio stations to play. Not Gaga, Young Jeezy or Coldplay. This. Shit. Right. Here. Mannnnn.”
I stand by that statement. However, I knew the follow up to such a massive commercial success would prove the duo’s toughest test to date. Color me nervous. Though I was enticed by the decision to bring back Danger Mouse in the role of producer, it seemed to elevate the pressure to deliver rather than lessen it.
The good and bad news is that this is not Attack & Release 2. Nor is it Brothers 2, though the four-man band that created it remains intact. Here, the hip-hop hooks have been exchanged for a strong, layered rock that is big enough to fill the arenas that The Keys plan to pack during their spring tour. The crunchy, distortion that made Auerbach famous is back, but it’s no longer the focal point.
While El Camino works well as a coherent thought, I’m left wanting the type of timeless songwriting that served as the driving force behind albums like Rubber Factory and The Big Come Up. Missing are tracks like “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” and “Brooklyn Bound,” that upon the first spin convinced me that I would still be listening when I’m 40. Maybe El Camino will grow on me. Maybe I’ll come to adore this effort like I do their others.
For now, I’ll remain content that Carney and Auerbach continue to make new strides, even if they haven’t reinvented the wheel. Is this their most interesting release to date? No. But it’s still fucking better than any of the other shit on the radio, and for that I am thankful. El Camino is the soundtrack to the party that The Black Keys attend each day that they awake and pinch themselves. It will keep you dancing. It will keep you singing. And it will keep me listening.
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Written by Rob Peoni