The Black Keys – El Camino (2011)

In my time at Generic Flow, I have never shied away from admitting that my two favorite contemporary bands are Green Day and the Black Keys. I don’t want to insult you by acting like I don’t carry some degree of bias. With the release of the Black Keys’ seventh studio album, El Camino, just days away, I am finally forced with the task of objectively surveying their music. Honestly, when I looked at the coming release of El Camino, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between the Black Keys and Green Day. They both had two relatively unheard albums in the early stages of their career that, while decent and reflective of a good career to come, sound as if they were recorded by singing into a can. The third studio release was really the one that put them both on the map; with the lethargic suburban punk Dookie and lo fi throwback of Rubber Factory. Each had a series of forgettable albums (which, in the case of both band, are way better than their popularity would suggest) over the next couple of years until they had the release that, until that point, their careers would likely be defined by. Green Day had 2004’s critically acclaimed and commercial gambit American Idiot and the Black Keys had last year’s Brothers, which sounded as if this kind of grungy rock band stepped through the doors into Oz for the first time. So that brings us up to date. Each band had a pivotal step to make after their defining album. Green Day decided to milk it for all it was worth, tour the shit out of it, base a musical off of their concept album, and dally for five years before releasing 21st Century Breakdown, which wasn’t bad but just sounded like an oversized less personal rethinking of American Idiot. The Black Keys have apparently chosen a different route. When I heard that they were rushing (by music temporality anyway) their next release a mere eighteen months after their flagship, I had my concerns. I worried that they were seeing the dollar signs flash in neon from their car commercials and critical success of Brothers and figured that they could bang out a few weeks in a recording studio to give us Brothers II. Well, sufficed to say, I was wrong.

It takes about twenty second in to the opening track “Lonely Boy” to realize that you are no longer in the realm of Brothers. This time around, Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney don’t seem to be slowing down for anyone. Their days of heavy drum-riff based songs seem ages ago as they have dived headfirst into classic classic rock n’ roll. The guitar is unrefined, the drums are flying, and everything is moving at a pace that seems to be speeding past all other Black Keys material in the shoulder. The opening song is absolute bliss from the vintage keyboard to the backup singers to the priceless music video ( dare you not to emulate the dance when you hear it). It really sets the tone for the rest of the album.

It’s unfair to use the term “concept” for this, but you are definitely in the world of El Camino from start to finish here. It’s a world of early 70s tack; a world of unrefined rock n’ roll, psychedelic keyboards, gold on the ceilings and… well, El Caminos. That’s enough for me. While all of the songs adhere to essentially the same style, they do their best not to limit themselves. They utilize the squealing high pitched guitar riff to set up a distorted lament of a destructive relationship with a woman (in a Black Keys song? I know) in “Run Right Back.” I can’t help but hear “Southern Man” just a little bit in the setup moments of the song, which is definitely never a bad thing. In their more “tender” moments (which never approach any actual tenderness), they offer “Stop Stop,” which sounds a heavy laden cover of a Smokey Robinson song. The only real pitfall of the album is the first half of “Little Black Submarines,” where they wane deep with a soft acoustic bawling. I’ve seen the band live three times now and they never bring it down for an acoustic or even a softer song- now I can see why. It just doesn’t seem right to hear Dan singing like he’s contemplating his life. The song seems to apologize for itself by going into rock overdrive for the final half.

It’s difficult to pick, but I would have to say that the masterpiece of the album is “Gold on the Ceiling.” It seems to represent an absolute synthesis of everything the Black Keys have ever been about; it’s blues, it’s rock, it’s Dan howling, it’s Patrick pounding the shit out of the drums, it’s heavy but catchy, even a little southern, but it’s so fucking awesome. I heard a few early comparisons of this track to the music of George Throgood, to which I have say, “Pfft…. in George Thorogood’s in fucking dreams.” Even if you don’t care for the Black Keys, I really think you owe it to yourself to hear this song.

I am biased I know, but I usually hold my bands to pretty high standards. Believe me, I know what they do wrong better than you do. I’ve heard when Green Day has gone so sappy-yet-commercial that it’s made me sicker than it ever could have made you. I’ve heard the Black Keys sing simplistic songs about women done them wrong two million times. But I assure you, this band is the real deal and they delivered once again. The thing I love about them the most is their blatant respect and knowledge of the classic music before them. They know how to play blues like Robert Johnson. They know how to wail like Zeppelin. They know how to croon like Al Green. Now, they can add rock n’ roll like the Stones to their list.

I look forward to celebrating this at the 2015 Grammys.


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