The fact that The Black Keys are now a household name is pretty bizarre. From 2002 to 2006, they released four very quietly received albums – but then again that wasn’t shocking, considering that they were playing garage-blues. Then in 2008, they began to get some solid buzz on account of Attack & Release, but were still firmly planted in the underground. Finally, their major break came when 2010’s Brothers was a major hit and made the band a worldwide sensation, but it was really a strange success. The only real smash hit on the record was “Tighten Up,” an odd but wonderful single that was built on a recurring guitar line instead of a catchy chorus. The album also spawned other lesser hits like “Next Girl” and “Howlin’ For You,” but was largely an expansive indie-blues record that showed their mastery of songcraft and was by no means your typical Billboard #3 album. What undoubtedly played a large role in the record’s success was its tongue-in-cheek promotion, from its album cover (that only possesses the text: “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.”), its music videos (see the “Next Girl” video that stars a dinosaur puppet) and how genuinely funny and humble Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney come off in all their interviews and TV appearances. They truly are the furthest thing from rock stars and don’t try to pretend they are, putting their music ahead of themselves and their personalities.
Following Brothers and the immense hype that it brought the band, the typical next step would have been for them to take some time off and put out an inspired, creative masterpiece that would justify placing them among the top rock bands of the day. Instead they headed back into the studio with no songs written and no game plan and quickly recorded what became El Camino, which they released at the start of December, only a year and a half after Brothers.
El Camino hits you like a bullet in that it packs 11 tracks into 38 minutes and seldom gives you a break for air. Somehow, it simultaneously feels loose, which can largely be attributed to the simplistic blues/rock/pop the Keys play and the fact that producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) is at the helm and has perfected their sound in his third stint with the band. The studio flourishes he adds to the duo’s in-your-face guitar/drum attack are subtle but expertly done. The slick keyboards added to standouts such as “Dead and Gone” and “Gold on the Ceiling” slide perfectly into the backgrounds of Carney and Auerbach’s grooves and sound like a natural extension of the duo. This time around the Keys don’t shy away from big choruses either, as tunes like “Lonely Boy” and “Sister” have verses that bubble with a toe-tapping energy that is justly released in their massive choruses. The only time the band truly slows things down comes on “Little Black Submarines,” which very well may be the best tune of the bunch. It starts as a purely acoustic blues number that slowly builds with some subdued drums and keyboards before exploding into a full on Zeppelin-esque romp at the two minute mark that allows Carney and Auerbach the opportunity to wail on their respective instruments and rock out harder than ever before. The festivities justly conclude in due form on the intense “Mind Eraser” that is propelled by a soaring guitar line and Auerbach’s haunting howls of, “Don’t let this be over,” which can’t help but resonate with the listener at this point.
This truly is a record that only The Black Keys could have pulled off, an album that succeeds in elevating them to the arena circuit without sounding like they have any aspirations of doing so. That’s what makes these guys so great; they don’t take themselves too seriously and just continue to put out simply great blues-rock records. Though the mainstream has finally caught on, The Black Keys show the only thing that’s changed is the size of their audience, not the pure, simplistic exuberance of their music.
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