The Black Keys: El Camino Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history, and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on the new record El Camino from Akron, Ohio blues duo The Black Keys.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
Many years ago, before I knew a single thing about The Black Keys, I just assumed they were White Stripes wannabes. They, like Jack and Meg, were a duo, also centered their sound around “blues-rock,” and, hell, even had a similar band name (similar in the same way that my Pearl Jam-loving neighbor growing up started a band called Diamond Smash). With every release, though, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have truly crafted their own defining sound, something that continues with El Camino.
El Camino highlights all of The Black Keys’ strengths. Crunchy guitars give way to splashy cymbals accompanied by pulsing organ on almost every song. It’s what you’d expect . . . safe, but not the least bit boring. Not a single track would falter on the radio, for length or commercial appeal. From the punchy hook on “Gold on the Ceiling” to the self-searching love loss of “Little Black Submarines” to the soulful falsetto-rich chorus on “Stop Stop,” you could imagine The Current overplaying every single track. Still, after ten 3-4 minute songs, I’m left wanting more. The songs are impeccably structured, but still feel a tad rigid at times. I’d love to hear just one of the songs given a 4-minute guitar interlude of the Wilco variety. The talent is there, but the exploration is absent.
The Black Keys are [currently] skipping the Twin Cities on their early 2012 tour, but don’t be surprised if Rock the Garden, SoundTown or the inaugural First Avenue festival nabs the duo to close out their respective events next summer. With Jack White too busy driving his cute little yellow van around, someone has to hold down the blues-rock fort.
Many ask the question “how do you follow up after Brothers?” While it is a tough question to pose, the Black Keys shrug off their stellar album and follow it up with El Camino, yet another great album in their discography. For this one, the Keys, along with producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse, deliver rock that has a down-home, bluesy feel. And while it’s not as bluesy as their earlier efforts, it definitely carries the same energy as Brothers and manages to maintain a jukebox-like feel—where someone walks into a bar, orders a whiskey neat, and cues up an old 45”. You can hear it with the blood-rushing energetic jam “Lonely Boy” and the toe-tapping antics in “Gold On The Ceiling.” However, there is also nice subtlety in the acoustics of “Little Black Submarines,” and while that is the lone jam that kind of slows things down a bit, the rest of it is energetic. If you’ve ever seen the Black Keys live in concert, this record matches the energy of their live show.
The Black Keys allow for a good case study in the music nerd parlor game of the “popularity chicken or egg.” Does a band get to the point of playing Saturday Night Live and selling enough records to become “popular” and then go limp and create boring music, or is the boring music actually the meal ticket to the riches previously described? While trying not to be that crotchety guy in the Guided by Voices t-shirt and crusty Chuck Taylors, The Black Keys seem tailor-fit to be saddled with the “they were better and more interesting with their earlier (less popular) material” albatross. Where it seemed like guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney valued rough aesthetics and gritty blues—capped by fuzzy productions and not-quite-perfect performances—on The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness (their first two LPs), they now seem to strive for a more tailored sound. The greasy funk of “Gold on the Ceiling” doesn’t feel like a “recorded live in the studio” take, like a lot of their older material, but a polished blues-rock number. The choruses of “Stop Stop” and “Nova Baby” are especially disappointing, seemingly built to be played on the radio and stripped of the grit and feeling that made their earlier work so enjoyable. Did they write a mass consumption-bating LP like El Camino because they have tasted the fruits of being popular? Or was their fruit-tasting the byproduct of their initial willingness to scrub clean their sound and make it more appealing to a larger audience? Who knows, but either way, El Camino was a further disappointment from a band that at one point I would not have been able to see being so disappointing.
Sooner or later, it seems that a lot of artists get to a point in their career (if they make it that far) where they start to view their musical prerogative as “having fun” rather than “making serious art.” I am not really sure if the Black Keys ever had the serious art phase, but their new record El Camino definitely seems to be of the alternate variety. It’s a big rock party devoid of any pretense whatsoever. And like most artist’s “fun” records that come later in their career, it is correspondingly pretty forgettable. There are some fun guitar riffs, some boot-stomping rhythms, and a great deal of swagger. But most of it just doesn’t have much weight. In comparison to some of the Keys’ earlier works it at least seemed like they were trying to have their blues rock anthems taken seriously, even as recently as 2009’s Brothers. From the jokey album art right down through the mediocre tunes, El Camino just seems mailed in.