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.