Album Review: The Black Keys – El Camino

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C+ | 12.06.11 | Nonesuch | Stream | MP3 | CD | Vinyl

One item you can’t contend with these two — they work their damn asses off. It basically feeds into their image, which lead singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach has “so never given a shit about” and “generally hates people who do” via a recent Guardian interview. Like it or not, they began as an unlikely duo churning out piston-driving blues rock from their down-and-out Rust Belt hometown Akron, Ohio. The first album cover I ever laid eyes upon, 2004’s Rubber Factory, was brazenly clever for its haphazard assemblage of black-and-white photos from the same bygone era channeled through each raucous track.  

Seven years later. Ellen is interviewing a struggling actor who will likely be making cameos for some time to come with his modern update of the twist whilst dancing to single “Lonely Boy”. The incorrigible Bob Odenkirk spoofs a used car commercial to sell the actual banged-up Town & Country they toured in back in the day. Quite the creative viral marketing campaign indeed. It seems that all the success of last year’s Grammy winning Brothers has propelled a band to sell the very success they wince at embracing.

2008’s Attack and Release let Danger Mouse, arguably the most prolific producer of the past decade, filter that raw sound through his Da Vinci mastery of Pro Tools. Brothers felt more like a return to Magic Potion, an album of pure rockers except for the former mixing in some cool bells and whistles, most notably on “Tighten Up.”

Danger Mouse not only produced, but helped write all the tracks on this year’s release. They spent more time in the studio than ever before. When NME asked Auerbach if he would repeat this inaugural process he said “I wouldn’t necessarily, but we worked and had fun.”

It’s obvious they put in the time tidying the sometimes messy off-key moments on El Camino. It’s the fun part I have a hard time hearing. “Money Maker” lacks any memorable hook, smooth transition or groove, basic elements they normally have in the bank. There’s just way too much muddled organ pounding, pedantic choir and guitar tracks to make any sense of what’s happening with “Gold on the Ceiling.” Spoon would have done a better job with the meek sensibilities of “Nova Baby”; built around lazy storytelling, bar-stuffing syllable squeezing and the occasional introduction of a superfluous instrument to perk your ears’ attention right before the song abruptly ends.

There are bright spots to acknowledge as well. The refreshing respite offered by the clean finger-picking on “Little Black Submarines”, which sets up the best guitar/drum chemistry between the two on the whole album, relies more on heavy two-chord jamming than forced intricate rhythms. “Stop Stop” sounds like a fun cover of The Guess Who’s “No Time” minus the political overtones; fortified with a playful pop chorus and touches of high-pitch metallophone.

As easy as it would be to fault the band itself for the shortcomings presented before you, much of it I attribute to the incorporation of Danger Mouse into their normally cloistered songwriting. That’s a tough pill to spit out because he’s been such a magnificent auteur with everyone from Cee-Lo to Daniele Luppi. Even he is mortal. What’s more surprising is you followed a road paved by him for our boys in question to traverse on Attack and Release. Now he’s the captain of a misguided cruise ship whose speakeasy they have a reluctant residency within. It’s cliche as hell, but do what you do best and keep it simple.

Stream ‘El Camino’ in full here.

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