Album Review: ‘El Camino’ by The Black Keys

jason stives looks at the latest release from the blues rockers …

I have not been able to pinpoint the sudden rise of The Black Keys. After five critically praised but commercially latent albums, the Akron, Ohio duo’s 2010 release Brothers became an overnight sensation. In the ubiquitous world of mundane Top 40 radio, The Black Keys and acts like Mumford & Sons have been able to draw interest from the remaining market of music buyers. With a million copies sold of said album and now three Grammy nominations, there is one clear-cut belief: Not everyone likes The Black Keys, but that’s okay.

Incendiary music snobs resent the Keys for their bombastic classic-rock vibe and their lack of bass players. Others embrace the two-man combo that only The White Stripes once seemed to pull off so well, and thanks in part to their infectious hit single “Tighten Up,” everyone learned how to whistle quickly and lazily. The Black Keys have basically made the same blues-infused album since their debut, but always a little better, with Brothers signifying a more cohesive attempt at breaking a mainstream barrier covered by the Nicklebacks and Foster The Peoples of the world. The band’s seventh studio album, El Camino, is yet another lurch in a more accessible style but still adhering to their patented crunchy guitar licks and trash-can-thump percussion.

El Camino ocontinues the band’s penchant for being relatively silly at the expense of being professional. Much of the album’s sound is owed in part to the glam rock and punk movements of ’70s England. The lead single “Lonely Boy” is a fast paced pump of Americana rock genius coupled with an equally amusing video online. It’s as if the band is berating you and beating you selfishly over the head with how unintentionally infectious their music can be, but it doesn’t just stop on the opening number.

There is a heavy dose of riff rock present more than the technical-sounding blues licks of previous Keys’ efforts, and it shows on tracks like “Gold On The Ceiling” and “Sister,” which choose to schmooze with being ’70s gold-pop lore for a 21st century listener.

It’s almost fitting that these guys apparently grew up on a healthy dose of Wu Tang Clan beats and Stax 45s because it’s that rhythmic cultivation that makes the duo unique, and El Camino wants to further show that influence in a more flashy sense, leaving room for more genre-hopping. “Little Black Submarine” starts out very Hank Williams-esque but slowly turns into a tub-thumping blistering rock ‘n’ roll hound. Other songs like “Dead & Gone” and “Nova Baby” want to be the glam sound they mimic on earlier tracks but instead turn into another Black Keys-styled tune — more original than lifting from the past.

Some could say the album lacks a credible amount of soul compared to their previous efforts. Instead, they go for the gusto with accessible poppy rock tunes. Yet, the glimmer of Dan Auerbach’s guitar playing shows a futile presentation of blues riffs, sonic rock reduction, and techno beat samples. Drummer Patrick Carney, of course, is always present with his steady backbeat that rolls more than it snaps and highlights many of the more radio-friendly tracks.

El Camino may not be The Black Keys best effort, but it’s sure as hell is trying to be the most enjoyable. In the dying world of credible rock music, The Black Keys could be the most popular garage band, and that’s far more pleasing than the most commercially successful ballad hard-rock group.

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Excellent)