The Black Keys – El Camino

The Black Keys are known for a plethora of reasons. Hilariously minimalist videos, sarcasm-soaked interviews and tough beards, however, are merely pin scratches on the surface of a group who emerged from the dreary flats of Ohio to the international limelight over the course of this past decade. Snarky quirks and dinosaur puppets aside, the most obvious measurement of a band is…well, the music. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have now unleashed El Camino, the group’s seventh release to date, and what it says about the band is worth hearing.

If one were to look at the evolution of The Black Keys, he or she would see a group who has managed to mature without letting arrogance seep through the cracks or their well-oiled machine. The band progressively moved from the raw and gritty tones of earlier releases such as The Big Come Up to more finely polished material as seen in Brothers. Also, their courage to test the waters of other genres, albeit a slow and steady process, can be heard if listening from strictly blues rock releases like Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory to more boundary-pushing records such as Attack & Release.

El Camino, like some sort of micromanager jacked-up on compromise, has succeeded in finding pleasant middlemen for all prior changes. In regards to the raw vs polished situation, the new album retains the relentless energy of their older material, but also adheres to a stronger sense of cohesion than other recent releases (“Hell of a Season”). This release also discovers middle ground for The Black Keys’ ever-changing style. Roughly halfway through their career, the group began straying from their blues rock roots and attempted to find footing anywhere that appeared appropriate. El Camino provides a fresh, more rock-driven sound (with an odd tinge of 80s punk) that holds consistency throughout the entire release.

Oh Danger Mouse, it’s cute how – akin to an actual mouse – you always make sure to leave little gifts behind in the wake of your projects. Your signature trademarks, however, are less in the realm of nibbled Oreos and shit and more lovingly in the realm of xylophones and electric organs. These pleasantries have been features largely untapped by the Black Keys catalogue, but now multiple examples are seen splendidly executed in tracks such as “Dead and Gone”, “Little Black Submarines”, and many others. Other new features on El Camino include a fair amount of background vocals and the prevalence of bass guitar (gasp, purists, gasp), which are both kindly welcomed.

The album starts off with the single, “Lonely Boy”, triggered by a groovy note bend that hits the floor and bounces back into an upbeat track that makes heartbreak more fun to dance to than ever before. “Dead and Gone” is a bundle pack of the new Black Keys features mentioned prior. With an intro driven initially by nothing more than the bass and drums, then flowing into a catchy melodic ditty paired with xylophone and female backing vocals, this song shows a more expansive nature, which will prove to remain constant throughout the release.

“Gold on the Ceiling” has a feel similar to Brothers’  “Howlin’ For You”, but somehow manages to be catchier. After this comes “Little Black Submarine”, quite possibly the highlight of the entire album. The intimate first half of the track, comprised solely of Auerbach and his guitar, sounds like something off Keep it Hid, typically a hands off area for the duo. Regardless, the second half of the track serves as a sequel to the solemn beginning, taking the same verse/chorus and giving it a classic rock twist. Distorted guitar, Carney’s relentless drumming, and constant harmonization turns what was initially a coffee shop night show into a perfect air guitar anthem (don’t lie to yourself).

“Money Maker” and “Run Right Back” both keep the album chugging along, bringing in some heavy instrumentals backed by hard-to-forget melodies. “Sister” leaves a far more significant impression than the previous two, with an unwavering bass line and Auerbach battling it out with his guitar for the melodic lead in the chorus. When listening to the next track, “Hell of a Season”, I was uncertain whether I was listening to The Black Keys or a bluesy Iggy Pop. It is one of the heavier tracks on the record, but still takes the time to throw in little xylophones bits here and there. The album wraps up with “Mind Eraser”, an oddly soulful conclusion that does the complete opposite of what it boasts in the title.

In the end, this record is proof that The Black Keys have changed, but not the type of bullshit change your pulled out of thin air when looking for a reason to break up with your ex. This change has been a long time coming, and is shaped by two seasoned musicians who have a solid understanding on what they are capable of accomplishing. El Camino is, once again, another stellar release from the once-Akron-now-Nashville outfit. Some bands know how to adapt the perfect amount to stay significant, and The Black Keys have this formula down to a science.

Top tracks include “Little Black Submarines”, “Lonely Boy”, and “Hell of a Season”.



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