Anyone who has had more than one conversation with me already knows how much i enjoy The Black Keys. In a musical culture increasingly seeing less and less artists who actually play instruments, these two young men from Ohio are indeed a breath of fresh air. Not only that, but to keep something as old as the blues from becoming what Jack White has described as “…note bendy, stratocaster white bullshit…" is impressive as well. The mere fact that these guys have also become commercially viable in a culture that worships someone as insincere and packaged as Justin Bieber is truly amazing. Many things set the Keys apart from most artists of today. They know how to write a hook, the production value has never been anything but top notch, and their songwriting has been shockingly, consistently excellent.
…With all that being said, I’m afraid to say that their latest outing, “El Camino” just might happen to be the weakest I’ve seen from them. Don’t let this be misleading. Dan Auerbach still sings with the passion and raw talent he always has, and Carney’s drums are still shaking the walls. The whole publicity for this record’s release was built almost completely on them “Returning to form, straight ahead rock and roll.” Even putting a picture of where the old tire factory that graced the cover of 2004’s “Rubber Factory” on the newest single’s (“Lonely Boy”) jacket cover. Of course, there is no longer a factory at this site, all that remains is pile of bricks and unmanned bulldozers…to an extreme critic of this record, the irony would be staggering….
On 2008’s “Attack & Release,” we saw the Key’s palate expanding with Danger Mouse’s subtle electronic flourishes, his fingerprints being only faint at their strongest. This has changed considerably for their latest effort. Not only has Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) taken complete production control, but he’s also being credited in the songwriting for the entire album as well. It seems the Key’s have surrendered a lot of their creative control in the process, as if this album should have been credited as “The Black Keys & Danger Mouse,” rather than just a record by “The Black Keys.” If last year’s “Brothers” taught listeners anything, it’s that the boys from Akron were and always will be their own best producers. The songwriting on that record was the most consistent and exciting they were since their much lesser known record “Rubber Factory.” A lot of fans complained that the record (Brothers) didn’t “rock as hard” as the others and “wasn’t the The Black Keys we’ve come to love.” They seemed to be half right. Although the record was quieter, it saw The Keys reinvigorated, drawing from whole different groups of influences. The emphasis from sludgy, overdriven guitars was switched to elaborate soundscapes and songwriting subtleties. It’s these types of subtleties that are largely absent from “El Camino.”
Lead single and first track “Lonely Boy” sets the scene appropriately with it’s opening guitar lick that finds the riff getting lowered a couple of octave’s thanks to a whammy pedal, sounding as if his guitar is a chainsaw that’s running out of gas. The chorus is very catchy, although the production seems too slick and slightly out of place. (It’s certainly no “Tighten Up.”)
If ”Dead and Gone” starts off with a riff that sounds like it came off of a Gnarls Barkley or Broken Bells record, it’s because it did.
Danger Mouse has often said he wishes to be thought of as an auteur of the music business. What does he mean exactly? “Like Woody Allen, everyone knows when they’re watching a Woody Allen movie…I want them to immediately know when they’re listening to something I did.” That would be good, until you start using those same very things over and over again. The distant electronic organ and spacey female background vocals are staples from the Danger Mouse canon. Not even to mention the same melodies that he insists on re-recording over and over into songs. (Play Gnarls Barkley’s “Going On” and Broken Bells’ “The Ghost Inside” back to back for a good example.) This doesn’t make “Dead and Gone” a bad song, it just makes it a less exciting song. The melody is still compelling, and it’s interesting to hear Dan sing the usual Major to Minor chord progression that Mouse puts in about oh…half of his songs.
"Gold on the Ceiling" is one of the few examples of The Key’s style meshing completely with the production. Just enough rawness is kept in, and the powerhouse chorus is amped up with multi tracked female backup vocals. The track seems to be a close cousin of their earlier T Rex/Gary Glitter inspired stomper "Howlin’ for You." Sounding somewhere between the Stadium Rock of Queen and the Glam of Marc Bolan, the song also has one of the raunchiest guitar solo’s we’ve heard from Auerbach since "Stack Shot Billy."
This record contains many firsts for the Keys. One of the most striking is the appearance of the half ballad, half Black Sabbath tribute, “Little Black Submarines.” The song’s melody sounds like a reworking of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.” After the first verse, the small acoustic plucking is joined by even smaller drums and that damn Wurlitzer that Danger Mouse insists on sticking into everything, and then slowly stops. The song is restarted by a guitar that Jack White would’ve been perfectly comfortable having on a White Stripe’s record. It’s one of the experiment’s that doesn’t fall flat on it’s face. (Like the talk box solo in “Money Maker.”)
Auerbach’s lyrics are still concerned about the same things, wayward women, lost lovers and betrayal. You always forgive him for this because he’s so damn good at expressing it.
At the center of this album is one of it’s most satisfying tracks…
"Run Right Back" has got it all, amped and octaved up spidery sounding guitars, overlayed onto a muscular fuzz guitar that recalls of all people, The Dead Weather. Superb singing, coupled with Carney’s new penchant for hitting the drums faster. This track seems to also encompass how immediate these guys can sound, even on a studio recording. No doubt this will be chosen as the next single (if they’re smart.) "Sister" is also enchanting, with it’s Motown chorus, being interplayed between 70’s rock licks. It’s a track that sounds like it could’ve been recorded by the "Off the Wall" - era Michael Jackson…or any other good R&B artist for that matter.
The experiments with tighter drums and jangly reggae guitars on “Hell of a Season” are unexpected and do a good job of mixing things up, and it definitely recalls The Clash in their “Police and Thieves” mode. It also might be the first time I’ve heard Carney drum “conventionally.”
After these high points, the last three tracks on “El Camino” suffer from “samesiness.” It’s the first time I can remember hearing a track on a Keys record and thinking “They could’ve done without that one.” But to say it TWO times?? “Stop Stop” means well, and Auerbach is definitely convincing in his falsetto during the chorus. The bells however, again no doubt brought in by Burton, simply recall too much of his earlier work. It not only seems unneeded, but uninspired as well. The only thing that saves the track from complete mediocrity is Auerbach’s filtered slide solo guitar. “Nova Baby” again starts off with a riff heard on many other Danger Mouse related projects. The chorus is also one of the most unmemorable ever put onto wax by the Keys. ”Mind Eraser” ends on a more promising note, the tale of a man who has the power to make his lover forget the times that have made her want to leave him in the first place. “Oh please! Don’t let it be over,” he sings, subliminally making us want to play this record again and again. Almost like having a very brief visit from a friend who’s company we really enjoy.
At it’s core, “El Camino” is a fine rock record. It has some of the best moments The Black Keys have ever recorded, as well as some of the most boring (though these are far fewer.) It is very lacking in the subtleties that made “Brothers” such an engaging listen. If this record proves anything, it’s that these boys truly are better when they’re at it by themselves, without celebrity producers. I guess thats what happens when you build up such a consistent discography, As soon as you have one subpar moment, it automatically becomes your worst moment. Fact of the matter is, The Black Keys are known to have albums that are made up of nothing but KILLER material, and this is definitely not the case here. They obviously have the skill and taste to see this, and I think Dan and Pat are probably at home now, secretly worrying about this record coming out.