You’d be forgiven if you didn’t bet on The Black Keys to outlive the wave of retro-fitted rock bands that broke out during the dawn of the new millennium. They lacked the color-coded sibling mystique of The White Stripes, the dapper dress of The Hives, and the East Village savvy of The Strokes. Instead, The Black Keys banked on substance over style, wearing the dirt of Delta blues proudly on their flannel sleeves. Now as guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney stretch into their second decade, their new album El Camino proves that they’re not only built to last, but revved up to ride on.
After 2010’s Brothers garnered them both commercial cash and Grammy gold, the duo could’ve easily coasted on with another slab of Muscle Shoals meditations. Instead El Camino takes a sharp u-turn and steps on the gas. What follows is a fast and furious tear that rarely hits the breaks: where Brothers was replete with soul-infused detours, their new offering keeps a lead foot on the pedal and a steady hand on the wheel.
Lead single ‘Lonely Boy’ kicks the righteous ruckus into gear with a lurching whammy detune winding up the riff and letting it rip. ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ stomps out a monster boogie and ‘Run Right Back’ conjures classic sleaze previously invoked by Them Crooked Vultures. And yet Auerbach’s guitar never strays from the songs at hand and his bass work conducts an understated rhythmic conspiracy with Carney.
Any witness to their live shows can testify to his ability to turn a room inside out with his vicious coils of feedback and fret work, but on El Camino the solos largely are mostly tamed to hummable earworms more gripping than a Centaurian slug. Therein lies the secret of what’s beneath the hood: the best rock should have the reckless abandon to fly off the tracks and yet never leave the rails.
|Music video for ‘Gold On The Ceiling’.|
The best song on the album demonstrates this perfect feint. ‘Little Black Submarines’ begins with the album’s sole quiet moment, Auerbach’s vulnerable, but forceful voice lilting over an acoustic guitar. Hushed keys and brushes sneak into the mix by the second verse before the duo’s trademark bombast crashes the scene and stirs the tune into a hurricane of anthemic vocals and dizzying guitar frenzies. What began as intimate and composed, ultimately is torn from its hinges, but the door to the artist remains in the frame.
Credit is due to the veritable third member for the album, producer Dan Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse. The last time he cut an LP with the duo, the product was perhaps the most curious entry in their discography, 2008’s Attack and Release. Long-time fans cried foul that The Black Keys had lost their two-piece integrity: they slathered bass and keys all through the mix and swapped out their Delta grit for dorm room bong resin. Rest assured he’s only painting with engine grease here. The duo remains front and center in the mix as Burton tastefully colors within the lines. His sleight of hand keeps the brass knuckles on while merely directing the swings, lending ‘Dead and Gone’ a sinister Muppet choir and ‘Stop Stop’ a luster of ZZ Top-a-go-go.
In 1977 Muddy Waters famously sang ‘The blues had a baby/and they called it rock and roll’ and The Black Keys seem to be the perfect midwives. Weaned on the stylings of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, they embraced 60’s psychedelia with Attack and Release, 70’s soul with Brothers, and now with El Camino they’re embracing full-blown rock thunder to storm the arena ciruit. Their 2006 tribute to Junior Kimbrough Chulahoma ended with a recording of Kimbrough’s widow leaving a praising and thankful message on Dan Auerbach’s answering machine. One could only imagine the smiles she might share with Muddy Waters if they could see how The Black Keys have reared their baby to the big time.