It has been 18 months since The Black Keys released the immensely successful Brothers (QRO review). The Ohio blues-rock duo’s new release, El Camino, is clearly a product of the same period of inspiration and creativity, albeit on the tail end. The new album complements its predecessor nicely. Whereas Brothers was melodically catchy and addictive, El Camino is energetic, rhythmically driven and dense in sound. The latter aspect can be credited to the guidance of Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse. Keyboards and bass refigure the classic guitar and drums artillery found on earlier releases. Though this process evidently began with the stylistic digressions of 2008’s Attack & Release (QRO review) and their rap-rock collaboration, Blakroc (2009), El Camino voyages into previously uncharted worlds of sonic solidity and energy. The sticker “Play Loud”, which adorns the album cover, signifies that intent clearly.
Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory were lively but thin; Brothers was full yet restrained; El Camino draws a line down the middle, perfectly balancing studio tinkering and ruffian musicianship. As well as the extra bass and keys, songs are frequently decorated by a multitude of guitar tracks. The album’s opening track and single, “Lonely Boy” is a stereogasmic blend of classic Keys riffs and pulsating distorted keyboards. Other standout tracks are the stomping “Gold On the Ceiling”, the wailing “Run Right Back”, “Hell of a Season”, and the emotive “Mind Eraser”, which closes the album. Despite the electrified feel, Auerbach and Carney still manage to weave beautiful acoustic pockets. “Little Black Submarines”, at least for its first half before being detonated by distortion, is a genuine acoustic folk song. A sense of that genre’s storytelling tradition is preserved by way of lyricism, Auerbach singing the standout line of the album: “Everybody knows that a broken heart is blind.”
The album title, which in Spanish means “the road,” is an apt metaphor to signify the new path The Black Keys have taken in the past few years. El Camino does indeed seem to be both a progressive and regressive record, a redefinition of their sound and style whilst honouring the anti-virtuosity – raw and reckless riffs – that brought them to the forefront of indie rock a decade ago.
MP3 Stream: “Gold On the Ceiling“