The Black Keys: “El Camino”

I’m not sure how The Black Keys keep pulling it off. On paper, they seem like the kind of band who ought to be little more than the sum of their record collection—a natty and diverse collection, to be sure, but one they put on display seemingly without inhibition. Sometimes, the references are very specific—Chulahoma was their blues album, and more specifically their Junior Kimbrough tribute; other times, they are more diffuse—Brothers smacked of vintage soul and R&B; and every now and then, they are simply obvious, like how Blakroc was their hip-hop excursion.

El Camino can be saddled with a similar tagline. This is their garage rock album, their punk album, their Clash or Stones opus—all of these signifiers work fine, amply backed by the record’s concision and its endless parade of classic-rock worshipping riffs, to say nothing of Dan Auerbach’s pre-release comparison to the Cramps and the lead single’s gleeful T-Rex vamp. It’s a non-stop barrage of hard, fast rock, all of it shaking and rattling with garage vigor. And it is, like everything else they have done, nothing less than another great Black Keys album, comparisons be damned.

It also happens to be, at first blush, a direct retreat from the album that made them famous. For years, The Black Keys pounded out primitive garage-blues in the color-coordinated shadows of Jack and Meg, until suddenly Blakroc and especially Brothers showed us how far-reaching their ambitions, and how eclectic their tastes, really are. Brothers was their breakthrough, a sprawling and joyful collection of songs that were as much about R&B swagger as bluesy riffing. Now comes El Camino: Short, concise, consistent, loaded with hooks and riffs but with nary an R&B or soul reference to be found.

Actually, though, it’s an ingenious delivery on the promise of Brothers. Don’t take its narrow vision to be a sign that they’re running on fumes; if Brothers expanded their sound outward, El Camino plums new depths. Pat Carney has never, I don’t think, banged away at his drum kit with the same howling abandon as he does on the cymbal-heavy “Hell of a Season,” and Dan Auerbach is simply on fire, spitting lyrics that should be blues clichés and making them sound instead like guttural rock and roll poetry, peeling off lickety-split riffs and solos as easily as he unfurls those randy “whoah-whoahs.”

This is a Black Keys album made for partying, but there’s a third guest here whose work is pivotal to the album’s success. Danger Mouse produced a full Black Keys album once before (Attack & Release), and he showed up to handle “Tighten Up,” the killer single that just happened to make Brothers explode. He produces everything here, too, and follows the pattern of “Tighten Up” right down to the letter: Notice how this album’s lead single, “Lonely Boy,” is hook-laden and bright, led by handclaps and glittery keyboards and yes, some of those whooahs.

Rather than be a formula, though, I think it’s just the sort of inspiration Auerbach and Carney needed for this album. Certainly, it’s different from Brothers, but also from Attack & Release. That album was a moody, sinister gem, but it was also very murky and affected, like a Tom Waits production slapped onto a Black Keys album. El Camino is the opposite. It’s quick, bright, and beat-savvy. Auerbach creates rock guitar nirvana; compile a list of the ten catchiest guitar hooks recorded in 2011, and I’ll bet you seven or eight of them are on this album. Carney is in the pocket, and very loud. Danger Mouse fills in the empty spaces with organs and celestes and hand claps.

And I just think the whole thing is a hoot and a holler. I love “Lonely Boy,” from its array of hooks to its odd video, which featured a Herman Cain-ish figure dancing without inhibition, but it’s only one of the gems here. For “Dead and Gone,” Danger Mouse goes full-on Phil Spector, and it’s a lavish delight. “Money Maker” is a great song about, I assume, a hooker, and the pounding, cymbal-crashing chorus is primitive and howling. “Little Black Submarines” is the only time the album slows down, but it doesn’t stay that way for long; it erupts from a haunted first half into electric guitar mayhem. Basically: Led Zeppelin, condensed into four minutes.

I’m excited about El Camino because it proves the Brothers breakthrough was just the beginning for The Black Keys. I love that it’s the sound of a great band doing what they do best, with a kind of mastery and easy momentum they’ve never conjured before. Mostly, though, I love it because it’s a great band doing what they do with real joy. For them and for us, El Camino sounds like a blast.

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