With the rather unexpected announcement of El Camino just a few short months ago, it had become apparent that The Black Keys were solidifying a theory I’d been discussing in my head ever since the release and hype of Brothers. I don’t mean this to be some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s hardly groundbreaking, but with the release of “Lonely Boy,” The Black Keys were fully committing themselves to a new era. My concern coming into the album was that the Nashville by way of Akron twosome were beginning to spin their tires, losing grip on what was once a unique and fascinating sound.
The answer as to whether or not that’s the case with El Camino remains to be seen. For as much as El Camino is basically a tribute album to their most commercially successful effort to date, the new album streamlines and refines the band’s rip roaring rock ‘n roll aesthetic. “Lonely Boy” is the quintessential alternative rock single, and will reward the Black Keys with sold out arenas around the country, but it’s easily forgettable in relation to the album. The track attempts to recapture the undeniably awesome hook of “Tighten Up,” when in reality it magnifies how The Black Keys are beginning to rust. A quick, unengaged look reveals no problems, but take a second look and you’ll notice a band beginning to slowly disintegrate.
Regardless of how desperate “Lonely Boy” begins to sound after more than one listen, the rest of El Camino is actually fairly enjoyable, even if it’s in an unintentionally ironic fashion. “Little Black Submarines” is the best example of this, as the track starts out with lead singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach orchestrating the only acoustic part on El Camino. The song eventually slows down and fades to black. But only for a second, as Auerbach’s screeching guitar and booming vocals explode onto the track. The second half of the track is monstrous in a vengeful manor, but it’s also cheesy as all get out. The Black Keys are so good at what they do though, that it’s hard to notice just exactly how generic and bland El Camino might be.
As easy as it is to get hung up on how similar El Camino sounds compared to Brothers and even parts of Attack & Release, there are instances which set this effort apart from their past work. The bass kick on “Sister” sounds like drummer Patrick Carney is literally jumping on the pedal with each knock. The balance of xylophone hum and twisted guitar riffs on “Stop Stop” is completely infectious. Most important though, The Black Keys exude a certain confidence on the album that is hard to ignore, and with a more concise track list (there’s no denying Brothers ran about twenty minutes too long), the album has a polish and refinement that makes it easy to love.
El Camino is aeons away from being revolutionary or influential, despite the public praise the album seems destined to receive. It is, however, The Black Keys, and even though it’s beginning to wear thin, that’s still saying something. The female backup choir choruses, the hand clap fills, the Ray Manzarek-style keyboards, everything about the album screams Auberbach and Carney, and until somebody else starts to do it better than these two, I’m still going to listen.
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