Having just sold out their Melbourne show in mere minutes, I thought it pertinent to review Ohio duo The Black Keys’ latest album El Camino.
This is their seventh studio album and was recorded at Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville. It was produced by prolific producer/musician Danger Mouse and bizarrely released on Nonesuch Records, better known for their noise/free jazz catalogue.
Making their mark as a two piece bass-less duo, comparisons were inevitably drawn to the White Stripes, not surprising as their names are relatively similar too. However, there are a lot of differences between the two. The Black Keys are much more garage rock oriented and incorporate a slightly bluesier swagger into their sound. There does appear to be bass on this album although no bass player is credited. It may well be Brian Burton’s keyboard playing that adds this dimension a la Ray Manzarek of The Doors. I could never really abide a rock band bereft of a bass player, however the three aforementioned bands have enough songwriting chops to make some amends, and I do enjoy certain albums by all of them.
It’s immediately clear that this album is more lavish in terms of production and instrumentation than their previous more stripped back albums, with said keyboardist and additional vocalists adding extra textures and layers to the sound. It’s still quintessentially The Black Keys though; dirty bluesy riffs and pounding drum patterns dominate the album along with Dan Auerbach’s vocals. His singing is much clearer on El Camino than on previous records, reminding me a little of Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age.
A much different songwriting approach was taken on El Camino, with the band entering the studio with no material whatsoever and composing and recording it in situ. This was a brave move indeed and Auerbach said of the sessions: “”It was difficult at times. Some days it worked great. Some days it was just infuriating. You gotta lose any kind of insecurity. It was a totally different way of thinking for me.” A different approach was taken to the vocals as well, with the lyrics being composed after the rest of the songs were recorded, often improvised in front of the microphone. A complete reversal of the band’s usual writing technique. On the subject of vocals, Auerbach stated “The words had to fit in this pre-existing space. It was really confining and totally different from anything I’d done before. None of these songs really have any meaning.” A brave statement and approach indeed, but it hasn’t affected the bands popularity at all, in fact they appear to be at the height of their powers.
The music continues on from previous releases, being dirty garage blues rock but possessing more diverse influences, seemingly (to my ears) being acts like The Cars, Roxy Music and T. Rex. So it’s slightly more melodic and compositionally involved but fans of their early work need fear not as it’s still totally recognizable as the band that made ThickFreakness, albeit with more modern production, melody and a slightly more commercial sound.
The production is very good with the band sounding much fuller than a mere two piece outfit. Apart from the smatterings of keyboard sounds and backing vocals, there are not many instruments besides Auerbach’s guitar and vocal work and Patrick Carney’s drums, and Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) has done an excellent job to give it a full, rounded sound.
Definite standout tracks are the excellent single “Lonely Boy” which we all know and love. “Gold On The Ceiling” is a great, stomping, swing-blues number with some fantastic dirty keyboard embellishments and ethereal vocal harmonies. “Black Submarines” begins with some dark acoustic guitars and vocals then builds to a great crescendo of garage filthiness with Auerbach inserting some very effective guitar licks along the way. “Money Maker” is an excellent rocker, with a full, epic chorus part that has me stunned at the fact that this is just a two piece band!
I have to congratulate The Black Keys for becoming a worldwide smash from humble beginnings. BUT… this album doesn’t strike me with the same unbridled intensity as say ThickFreakness. It’s a good album, it’s very well produced, it has a hit single, it’s a worldwide smash, but it’s not their best in this reviewer’s opinion, and some hardcore fans may shy away from the more polished, commercial direction the band has taken. I am not opposed to bands tackling a more mainstream sound, and I don’t think they have done it in an attempt to become rich etc. but there is some filler material present, which is unfortunate. With some culling, this could have been one of the best EPs in the history of rock music. Much like the Guns n Roses Use Your Illusion albums should have been, it could easily have been pared back to make a singular, much more powerful work. Still, I’ve enjoyed my repeated listenings, and it’s for the most part, a very good effort.