The Black Keys

El Camino

(Nonesuch; 2011)

By David M. Goldstein | 14 January 2012

A hearty congratulation is in order here. Seven albums in ten years is an impressive feat, and this, coupled with relentless touring, has finally landed the Black Keys squarely within the mainstream consciousness. I’m still not entirely sure how two gawky white guys from Ohio managed to sell out Madison Square Garden in fifteen minutes (twice!)? But it’s impressive nonetheless.

And yet, part of me wants them to cool it. The golden rule of getting to the endzone is acting like you’ve been there before, and the recent gossip surrounding this band is threatening to overshadow the tunes. Granted, it’s not like drummer Patrick Carney asked his ex-wife to air their dirty laundry in an utterly bizarre Salon article masquerading as serious memoir (seriously, who the hell does that?). But the Keys’ (or Carney’s anyway) use of Rolling Stone as a platform to pithily snipe at soft targets like Nickelback isn’t a good look either. And if you want to withhold El Camino from Spotify, that’s your choice, but you needn’t get all pariah-like about it (Carney: “I like to buy music.” Well good).

No matter, El Camino is going to be huge, strategically released a mere year and a few months after their near breakthrough Brothers (2010), and in early December no less, thus leading a handful of music publications to stuff it into their year-end coverage, whether or not anyone actually had a chance to listen to the thing. Whereas Brothers was stripped down and soulful, a clear product of the Muscle Shoals studio where it was recorded, El Camino is posited as the full-on par-tay record, inspired by T-Rex and the Cramps. Which is fine, so long as you’re OK with that par-tay happening in your office around the holidays, with that 38-year old brah from accounting howling, “Whoooa / She is milk and honey / Whoooa / She wants filthy money” (“Moneymaker”) four Heinekens deep. The sole Dangermouse production (“Tighten Up”) on the last record was a hit, so he’s once again been upgraded to full-time duty, hell bent on committing the mortal sin of treating Dan Auerbach’s guitar like just another component of an echo-heavy mix as opposed to the propane-powered weapon it is.

Seeing as he piles on the reverb and occasional xylophone pings while generally dialing down the guitars, I’m still not entirely sure how the frequent Keys n’ Mouse union stands to benefit the former, unless Auerbach and Carney were actually hoping that three-fourths of their latest record would sound like a tribute to Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23.” But not even a production ham like Dangermouse is capable of fucking up El Camino‘s first half. For starters, the soon to be ubiquitous “Lonely Boy” will do nothing to harm the reputation of the Black Keys as a thoroughly kick-ass singles band; Auerbach’s guitar revs like a backfiring pickup, the organ riff is suitably sleazy, and the chorus is huge. Likewise for obvious second single “Gold on the Ceiling,” an absolutely steamrolling strut to soundtrack the bar fight of your Patrick Swayze fantasies, each Carney snare hit landing like a pool cue against your skull. “Little Black Submarines” is the textbook “quiet ballad into LOUD ROCK” song that correctly records Auerbach’s guitar for maximum crunch, and if “Moneymaker” is made of considerably weaker stuff than the four songs that preceded it, it’s at least a catchy little pleasure, its sub-Kings of Leon lyrical content rendering it gentleman’s-club-ready.

Each of the aforementioned songs are the least negatively affected by the presence of Dangermouse; the Black Keys live and die by their chorus hooks and the concrete guitar oomph. When both go lacking, their songs suffer accordingly. Excepting “Run Right Back,” there is precious little on the second half of this album that lives up to the promise of the first, hamstrung as it is by a dearth of memorable bits and, again, made worse by the frustrating lack of guitar in the mix. Which shifts the focus to Dan Auerbach’s lyrics, most of which now can only be sung credibly by Brian Johnson (“Finest exterior / She’s so superior” is tailor made for the next AC/DC record). Everything is relegated to mid-tempo, a song or two actually uses drum samples, and nothing manages to kick up a holy ruckus like first half wonders “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.”

Questionable production values can’t obscure the fact that the Black Keys remain a mighty outfit whose singles are far better than any terrestrial radio rock has a right to be; plus, at this stage in their career, they’re totally overdue for the double live record. With El Camino, the Black Keys have essentially twenty minutes of worthwhile music, at least as far as partying is concerned. Rest assured your parents, and maybe even your boss, will totally dig it. Because who doesn’t like to party?