December 16, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
Circa July 2002, The Black Keys played their first gig in Cleveland to a crowd of eight people, or so the story goes. What is for sure is as of today, their last album ‘Brothers’ has sold in excess of 850,000 copies and they can sell out pretty much any venue either side of the pond.
They’ve come a long way since Cleveland, and on their 7th album ‘El Camino’ they look to build on the success of ‘Brothers’ (helped no doubt by the use of songs like ‘Tighten Up’ in numerous ads) and move ever further away from their beginnings.
These Ohio boys have always made boogie music for the soul. As long as you didn’t get too held up on the ‘appropriation of black music’ idea (something I’ve noticed in a couple of Keys reviews, and always a moot subject for me) their rusty tin-can blues kept it simple and knew all the right buttons to press. But in recent years they’ve started to leave the garage, stepping out into cleaner, more mainstream territory and judging from ‘El Camino’, long gone are the days of ‘The Moan’ and its ilk.
The influence of Über-producer Dangermouse can be heard more clearly than ever, the album has more of a poppy undertone than previous records and while no one would be justified in pointing their ‘Sell-Out!’ fingers, ‘El Camino’ is easily their most radio-friendly release to date. It doesn’t quite have as much light and shade as his first album with the band, ‘Attack & Release’, but he still keeps the quality control tight.
Comparisons between The Black Keys and The White Stripes (and a million other ‘The…’ bands) have never held much ground for me, and now they seem even less relevant. Each song has its own identity and list of ‘sounds like’ comparisons. At times the organ sounds bring to mind White’s other outfit The Raconteurs, while T-Rex and 80s ZZ Top. Yep, beardy Bolan or cat-suit Gibbins are what we’re talking about. ‘Gold On The Ceiling’ is a good example.
Lyrically things for the Black Keys remain in the same ball park as they always have; Broken hearts, sorrow, love lost, devil women etc. Auerbach’s voice has always been one of the main weapons in their arsenal and he does a decent job here, but you don’t get the feeling that he’s really spilling his heart and soul out for a nice southern girl. His solo album ‘Keep It Hid’ was all heart but here it’s just another instrument, albeit a good one. The backing chorus on most of the songs doesn’t do him justice either.
One of the biggest changes is the relegation of his six strings to the role of rhythm and nothing more. Where once their were dirty, fuzzed up leads are now kept in the background, and aside from the odd solo it’s the vocals and Dangermouse’s bells & whistles taking the foreground. In a two-piece the lack of guitars may be a bit of a worry, but Carney does an impressive job on the drums, and between them the songwriting is still top-notch.
‘Little Black Submarine’ is one of the highlights, stripped back to an acoustic/vocal opening that leads to a Zeppelin inspired crescendo. There’s plenty of rock ‘n’ roll on show here. it’s just been given a bit of glitz and glamour. ‘Dead & Gone’ and ‘Sister’ have that core Keys sound, but they’ve been given a polish to get rid of the rust.
‘El Camino’ is a good bit shorter than ‘Brothers’ , so benefits as it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Overall it’s a more solid release too, but still fails to quite reach the highs of some of the earlier releases. That being said it’s still a very hard album not to like, even if it may be hard to really fall in love with.