Album review: The Black Keys' ‘El Camino’
On their latest album, the Black Keys strip it back to the fundamentals, and they do it without sounding like anyone else. Call it the best rock album of 2011 or 2012. Or both.
Look, rock and roll isn't that hard if you've got a sex drive, two arms and at least a couple fingers for strumming and fretting — or if you prefer, thumping, snaring and keeping time. It is a formula, one with a few basic ingredients: rhythm, attitude, melody, volume and an undying belief in freedom through a few well-chosen chords. Why make it any more complicated than that?
The Black Keys are serious about this, and on their seventh record, “El Camino,” prove it with 11 songs about love, lust, greed, desire, helplessness, heartbreak, or some combination thereof. The Akron, Ohio-bred pair — Patrick Carney on drums and Dan Auerbach on guitars and vocals — have for the last decade tapped into the rich, deep well of American roots music and have proved over and over again that they understand the Truth of rock and roll, blues, country and western, and rhythm and blues.
“El Camino” sees the team, which has recently relocated to Nashville, asserting itself as a pure rock band by stripping away any artifice or irony — not that the Black Keys had much of it in the first place — to concentrate on the fundamentals, the kind that recall bands as varied as the Rolling Stones, Booker T. and the MG’s, the Ramones and White Stripes. With the help of producer Danger Mouse, who works with admirable restraint to keep the band clean of unnecessary effects, the Black Keys do it without sounding like anyone else.
Highlights? “Sister” contains a devastating opening — “Wake up, gonna wake up to nothing/Breakup, the breakup is coming” — that the band couples with a midtempo dance number with hand claps, a humming organ, a classic riff and hooks worthy of 1965-era Beatles. “Gold on the Ceiling” sounds as if it's existed forever — why hasn't somebody combined these chords before? Same with “Run Right Back,” which contains a guitar line that's so obviously primal that it's a wonder it's lain in plain view for so long.
Part of the joy within “El Camino” is that it's butt-shaking music, the kind that dudes in the Rust Belt used to appreciate and dance along to without having to worry about homophobic football jerks beating them up. The songs are reminiscent of those made by “Jim Dandy” Mangrum of Black Oak Arkansas and bands such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Those artists understood that melodocizing and harmonizing and revealing their femme sides had their place and time, as did weird time signatures, trippy remixes and four-part harmonies (mostly after you've got your date in a candlelit bedroom), and that the way into a lover's unmentionables was on the dance floor with big and bad guitar rock songs and some grand declarations.
“Dead and Gone” bounces along with the energy of something from the Clash's “London Calling,” Arcade Fire's “The Suburbs” or Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run” (and features a “She's the One”-suggestive glockenspiel melody); “Stop Stop” features a fuzz guitar line half-ripped from the Electric Prunes' “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” or basically anything else from the “Nuggets” era of ’60s rock. Add into this the simple truth that “El Camino” is an album with lyrics that are both unpretentious and un-dumb (no small feat), songs that should appeal both to the thugs and the thespians in your life, songs about opportunists (“She wants milk and honey/She wants filthy money,” bemoans Auerbach in “Money Maker”), lines that describe being tortured by a lover with an evil streak (“Stop Stop”) as “like being cooled by the rain/In the eye of the storm.”
It feels a little funny to gush so outwardly about a record, like the critical capacities are failing when enthusiasm takes over. But sometimes, a CD scratches an itch you didn't even know you had, and “El Camino” is that record; it stands alongside the Strange Boys' criminally underrated “Live Music” as evidence that a few dudes still know how to party smartly with guitars and snarl. It's a summer record released in the winter, a dance record that just happens to rock, a rock record that fans of LCD Soundsystem will dig. It's a party record, a driving down the highway, “I'm in love with rock and roll, and I'll be out all night” record.
By the time Auerbach finishes the final guitar solo on the album, on closer “Mind Eraser,” and he and Carney have moved toward the end, the singer is repeating — pleading — the phrase, “Oh, don't let it be over.” There's one way to fix that: the repeat button. Really, the only question is whether, this late in the year, this constitutes the best rock album of 2011 or 2012. It'll probably be both.
The Black Keys
Four stars (Out of four)
-- Randall Roberts
Image: Dan Auerbach, left, and Patrick Carney. Credit: Danny Clinch