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The Black Keys - 'El Camino' Review

Blues-Rock Duo Deliver the Goods on 'Brothers' Follow-Up

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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black keys el camino review

The Black Keys

Photo: Danny Clinch.
Building on the commercial success of Brothers, the Black Keys deliver another streamlined mixture of rock and blues on El Camino. Exhibiting a soulful sound that flaunts a sexy, grimy, garage-rock vibe, the album rolls along with a breezy confidence, and only one of its 11 tracks is longer than four minutes. Lyrically, this duo don’t offer many new surprises -- bad love still weighs heavy on frontman Dan Auerbach’s mind -- but the constant aural delights make this album a throwback to good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll without seeming hopelessly retro about it.

Heading to the Mainstream

Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have spent a decade refining their approach, which started out as crude and primal but has since developed to embrace more prominent hooks and a polished sheen that hasn’t watered down the group’s blunt songs. If Brothers signaled the Black Keys’ willingness to enter the mainstream, then El Camino capitalizes on the previous album’s pop move. The new album’s songs are instantly engaging, sporting an energy and edge that’s seductive. As a result, El Camino is a wholly appealing combo of bubblegum catchiness and garage-rock attitude. This is an album that’s clearly meant to satisfy the band’s newfound audience, but the material’s tightness is so irresistible that there’s no sense that the duo are compromising their blues-rock credentials in the process.

Musical Muscle

El Camino leads off with “Lonely Boy,” which encapsulates everything that’s terrific about the Black Keys in just over three minutes. A demonically simple blues riff is complemented by Carney’s burn-rubber drumming and a funky keyboard. As for the words, they’re typical of Auerbach, who has made a career bemoaning the treachery of evil women who bewitch his heart. (In this way, he recalls Jack White, another blues aficionado often lamenting his love woes.) Buttressed by female backup vocalists who send the song into the stratosphere, “Lonely Boy” makes romantic agony compelling but also rollicking. The album’s second single, “Gold on the Ceiling,” is only slightly less captivating, and the rest of El Camino follows suit, emphasizing each song’s musical muscle in such a way that it hits you right between the eyes. It’s not that the album lacks in sophistication or subtlety, but the Black Keys and co-producer Danger Mouse want to make sure every moment has the sharpness of a spear’s point.

Running Out of Gas

The only downside to such a strategy is that, eventually, the truly dazzling songs give way to the merely good ones, the sonic equivalent of a sprinter huffing and puffing to try to complete a marathon. The second half of El Camino lacks the giddy, headlong rush of the early songs, and the band’s somewhat monochromatic approach begins to become predictable. It’s hardly a deal-breaker since tracks like “Nova Baby” and “Mind Eraser” have a certain pluck to them, and Auerbach’s weary voice continues to communicate hard-earned misery. But this is definitely a case of an album whose highlight moments have been stacked near the beginning.

Turn It Up

The Black Keys can be seen at just the latest band celebrated for their commitment to authentic rock ‘n’ roll. But like the White Stripes or Kings of Leon before them, the question for this duo is how to go about paying homage to rock’s roots while still being relevant to today. El Camino finds the group bulking up their soulful sound while simultaneously going for the pop jugular. For the most part, it’s an approach that reaps big rewards. Here’s an album that will work best on the jukebox of your favorite diner, its compact, combustive tunes improving the mood of everybody in earshot.

'El Camino' - Best Tracks:

“Lonely Boy” (Purchase/Download)
“Gold on the Ceiling” (Purchase/Download)
“Little Black Submarines” (Purchase/Download)
“Sister” (Purchase/Download)
“Run Right Back” (Purchase/Download)

Release date – December 6, 2011
Nonesuch

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