December 2, 2011
Album Review: The Black Keys - 'El Camino'
Successfully filling a White Stripes-shaped hole
7 / 10
It feels pretty strange to be typing these words, but of late The Black Keys have undoubtedly become something of a big deal. Their last album ‘Brothers’ scooped three Grammy awards (Best Alternative Album, Best Rock Performance and Best Recording Package, whatever that is) and sold over a million copies worldwide. They recently announced a second show at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace after the first sold out in under a week.
How did these jobbing blues-rockers from Akron, Ohio, suddenly get so huge? One persuasive theory is that they’ve merely inherited 'The White Stripes’ fanbase, with Jack and Meg’s demise creating a vacuum in the world of rootsy guitar-and-drums duos that the nominally similar Black Keys have rushed in to fill. In fact, they’ve outlasted almost all of the other bands who rose to prominence during the garage rock revival a decade ago (whither now the likes of The Datsuns and The Von Bondies?) and simply by being the last men standing in the vicinity of a vintage Fender Twin, The Black Keys have cleaned up.
But that’s only half the story. Over the last few albums, with the aid of regular producer Danger Mouse, The Black Keys have been gradually evolving from bluesy bar-band scufflers into streamlined rock ravagers. ‘El Camino’ had to be a record that justified the band’s elevation to the arena circuit, and it comes up trumps with a fat-free set of thumping uptempo rockers and primitive soul stompers.
Whereas previously the pair would never discuss tactics before entering the studio to jam, here every song sounds purposeful and premeditated. Single and opener ‘Lonely Boy’ sets the tone with its rabble-rousing rockabilly rumble. Even for committed minimalists like The Black Keys, the song is brutally simple, with Dan Auerbach refusing to wait for a reciprocal glance before yanking his heart out and slapping it on the table (“I don’t mind bleeding” he sings, blithely). ‘Run Right Back’ borrows its sleazy strut from Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘No One Knows’, succinctly sketching out another fatal attraction scenario (“Finest exterior/ She’s so superior/ But she won’t allow/And I’m wounded now”) to a rhythm that feels like a finger jabbing in your chest. ‘Little Black Submarines’ is more ambitious, starting out in Johnny Cash territory before exploding into a psycho-blues freakdown.
‘Sister’, with its insistent ’80s pulse, is simply the best out-and-out pop song they’ve ever written, while the brilliantly demented cowboy glam holler of ‘Gold On The Ceiling’ is boosted by the band’s new trio of female backing singers wailing for all they’re worth. It’s a lot of fun, although The Black Keys have (presumably unwittingly) just rewritten Super Furry Animals’ demented cowboy glam holler ‘Golden Retriever’. ‘Money Maker’ also sounds comfortingly familiar, with a primary riff that’s a ringer for The Hives’ ‘Main Offender’ (although that’s OK, because it’s not like The Hives are around to play it for themselves).
Ultimately, when you’re working with such basic, well-worn materials, none of it is going to sound particularly original, but ‘El Camino’ is at least thrusting and urgent and very quickly to the point. Whatever Danger Mouse has done to galvanise The Black Keys – and thankfully he’s left his trademark soporific shuffling drums at home, the Keys’ Pat Carney being more of a bare-knuckle bludgeoner – he’s got the band operating at maximum efficiency.
The Black Keys will never really be able to boast the fizzing sexual tension and weirdo intrigue of The White Stripes, the dazzling dexterity of White Denim, nor the strutting showmanship of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Make-Up or The Hives. But for 37 rollicking minutes, they give it the full gun, meeting the challenge of being the biggest garage rock band in the world head-on.
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