The Black Keys – ‘El Camino’ (Review)

The guitar/drums rock-duo concept is not a new one, but its success relies on the ways in which bands overcome the limitations in personnel. The White Stripes did it with a combination of irresistibly catchy garage rock (and not racing to dispel wild assumptions about their relationship — even incest is good publicity). The Ting Tings aimed squarely for the charts with flavour-of-the-month adroitness, while Death From Above 1979’s bizarre dance punk had enough face-meltingly distorted bass noodling for it not to be an issue.

The steadily rising star of The Black Keys is therefore a slight mystery. Neither charisma nor innovation appear to be of concern for guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, yet there’s something in their no-nonsense blues rock that has caught on in a major way on both sides of the Atlantic, and the arrival of their Danger Mouse-produced seventh album looks set to cement their ‘big rock act’ status. But how did we get here?

It’s firstly important to consider that being a duo doesn’t define the band’s sound as much as liberate it. Carney’s drumming is big and spacious, leaving plenty of room for Auerbach to layer guitar parts and suitably aggrieved vocals in the studio, and both are always careful to retain that live and wired feel. Building a following in the hard-working, constant touring fashion, their heavy, mid-tempo grooves caught the ear of hip-hop mogul Damon Dash, who conceived a collaborative album (2009’s Blakroc) which saw the band provide beats for a ragtag crew of MCs including Mos Def, Jim Jones and members of Wu-Tang Clan. The plot thickens…

2010’s monster set Brothers, built on previous album Attack and Release to fully define the raw, guttural sound that appears to be one of the factors behind the band’s wildfire spread of popularity — though regular appearances on the Fifa 11 ads and HBO’s brilliant Eastbound And Down series doubtless helped grease the wheels a little. But what of its follow-up, El Camino?

The opening euphoric rush of ‘Lonely Boy’ is an example of weirdly no-frills bombast only The Black Keys could accomplish. Its chant-along hook and ballsy riffs provide the perfect soundtrack to one of the strangest viral promo videos for a long time: a one-take clip of actor/security guard Derrick T. Tuggle dancing to the track in a motel lobby, kind of like a cooler version of Thom Yorke in Radiohead’s ‘Lotus Flower’ video.

‘Gold On The Ceiling’s 12/8 shuffle and glam synths is like a long-lost T-Rex and ZZ top collaboration, but much better than that sounds, while ‘Little Black Submarine’ begins with a delicate acoustic blues before unexpectedly dropping into an electrifying guitar break reminiscent of Tom Petty’s ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane’. The irresistibly meaty stomp of ‘Sister’ induces constant replays, its matter-of-fact rattle of drum sticks being dropped back onto snare after the last beat, signifying a satisfactory job done.

It would be misleading to suggest that El Camino is top-heavy in its track listing, but the riffs do start to grate during the later numbers. The duo are adept at utilising every aspect of the quiet/loud dynamic, and some inventive arrangements go so way towards rescuing ‘Hell Of A Season’ and ‘Mind Eraser’, while the touches of keyboards and other instrumentation sparingly added by Danger Mouse throughout come to the fore on ‘Nova Baby’: a curious yet not entirely off-putting indie/blues crossover.

As ever with The Black Keys, there’s nothing especially original in this collection of tracks; rather, the duo look to succeed through the sheer visceral force of their pummelling blues. While it doesn’t quite have the effortless flow of its predecessor, El Camino’s unfussy songwriting and heavy sonic firepower more than justifies The Black Keys’ newfound A-lister status.

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