In his review of The Black Keys’ sold-out Minneapolis show in support of Brothers, Star Tribune writer Chris Riemenschneider commented, “The set they did play was tight, masterfully executed and had zero filler. Is 85 minutes of perfection better than two hours of varying quality?” El Camino, The Black Keys’ seventh studio album, answers that question with slightly less than 40 minutes of blistering affirmation. With producer Brian Burton’s featherweight, yet telltale, touches, vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have polished each track to the high standards of “Tighten Up”. Recorded almost immediately after the aforementioned Brothers tour, El Camino distills its predecessor’s high-octane fumes and high-profile influences into very nearly the Platonic ideal of rock and roll. Like the wood-paneled minivan that adorns the album cover, each track is big, brash, and classic. El Camino reminds The Black Keys’ audience that they deserve that extra five minutes to themselves because not a bar, verse, or lyric is wasted: They are all, in fact, “masterfully executed.”
The Black Keys are successful because they see their icons and raise them, amping up the classics to breathtaking speed with the lo-fi snarl that made them famous in the first place. The lickety-split drums of YouTube sensation “Lonely Boy”, similar to rockabilly touchstone Johnny Burnette’s “Rock Billy Boogie”, kick off the album along with a screaming Hammond organ. This instantly recognizable beat appears again on “Run Right Back”, but it eschews buoyancy for buzzing minor keys and an electric guitar with the timbre of a baby crying. Rockabilly evolves into punk on “Hell of a Season”, whose brassy cymbals and articulate bass line sound like The Clash’s tongue-in-cheek cover of “Police and Thieves”. Auerbach gives the song poignancy, however, when he sings in his signature swooning falsetto, “In this hell of a season/Give me more of a reason/To be with you/Say you’ll be better/I’ll keep waiting forever/You know I do.” Burton, aka Danger Mouse, also softens the rampaging percussion with the chorus’s pure, ringing triangle notes.
Burton’s last project, the Italian film noir-inspired Rome, audibly influences his touches throughout El Camino, which relieve the album’s ear-bleeding electricity. “Dead and Gone” segues into the same triangle chords on “Hell of a Season” as the beatific chorus underlying much of Rome. That album’s thematic spaghetti western effect creeps into the beginning of “Little Black Submarines”, which opens with Auerbach’s lonely quaver and simple acoustic strumming. But then at the two-minute mark, it erupts into a barroom brawler like — according to Auerbach himself — Black Sabbath. His shredding on “Submarines” tops even the also Burton-produced Attack and Release’s most face-melting moments at The Black Keys’ famed Crystal Ballroom performance. Attack’s psychedelia does surface on “Money Maker”, surrounding Auerbach’s voice and a cameo appearance by a trumpet buzz-wah in a halo of woozy reverb.
Besides drawing on their own back catalog and punk and rockabilly influences, Auerbach and Carney liberally sample funk, Motown, and ‘60s Britpop throughout El Camino, especially on the latter half. “Sister” moonwalks with a “Billie Jean” beat and a sassy kazoo-like breakdown from Auerbach’s Hammond, and “Stop Stop”’s tambourines and hand claps build like a Mod dance party only to break down like a Four Tops floor-filler. Follower “Nova Baby” is more of an enigma, swelling with elegant background notes like the song’s titular dying star. But closer “Mind Eraser” is unquestionably sexy, riding a beat Al Green would have produced in 1972. After hearing Auerbach bend over backward for proud, emotionally unavailable gold diggers, it’s a pleasure to hear him growl, a la Hombre Lobo, “I am a mind eraser, anything goes” (even though, of course, he later rescinds).
But it’s the bombastic, slightly sleazy “Gold on the Ceiling” that best sums up The Black Keys’ almost unbelievably consistent musicianship and success: “They all want my gold on the ceiling/Just a matter of time/Before you steal it/It’s all right, ain’t no God in my heart,” Auerbach sings. El Camino’s soul, in Auerbach’s hair-raising falsetto and Carney’s wicked drum lines, disproves the last line (even though the “gold” may very well refer to Brothers’ half a million sales). The duo deserves a victory lap after ascending from four-track recordings in Carney’s basement to selling out amphitheaters and headlining festivals, all while maintaining the same DIY aesthetic and work ethic since their Big Come Up. And what better vehicle for their success than El Camino?
Essential Tracks: “Hell of a Season”, “Mind Eraser”, and “Little Black Submarines”