In many ways, bands should be restricted from releasing albums of new material during the month of December. That last month of the year is pretty strictly reserved for the holiday album, the live album or the compilation album, all of which make for good gift-giving or as soundtracks to your Christmas parties. It’s also very much a list-making time of year, where everyone takes stock of the music they heard in the 11 months prior and admits to their favorites. Put out your record of original material in December and risk not being included in year-end countdowns, either because they’re already written and published in advance or there’s not enough time to give your record enough listens for proper consideration. Exceptions will always be made though, speaking specifically to 2010 and Kanye West’s super late release of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. It was a year-ending blind side that essentially kicked the ass of virtually everything that came before it. A year later, do you think anyone regrets slotting that album at the top of their “Best of” list despite probably only hearing it a half dozen or so times? Sure it’s brilliant, and definitely Kanye’s most accomplished work to date, but is it “perfect”?
This year’s artist playing the late release game is The Black Keys with their seventh long player, “El Camino”. If you follow along with the details surrounding the recording of this album, you know the band entered guitarist Dan Auerbach’s new Nashville studio back in March and announced they’d completed the new record this past July. Apparently it takes close to six months to put a whole campaign together prior to an album’s release. That includes making a comedic promotional video starring Bob Odenkirk, setting up a hotline for people to call and coming up with your own viral music video. Admittedly, it’s a pretty smart and fun strategy to adopt, certainly better than a traditional album release. When you take such a novel approach, giving a little release date leeway is practically required, and better the first Tuesday in December than the last. The Black Keys have also been dealing with the “problem” of immense popularity. Their last album “Brothers” was a game changer for them, earning all kinds of radio airplay and higher billing on summer music festival lineups thanks to songs like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You”, the latter of which was still blasting from car stereos this past summer, a year after that record’s release. Not a minute had gone by towards lowering the band’s visibility when they struck again with “El Camino”‘s first single “Lonely Boy” a couple months back. It continues the tradition of infectious blues-driven garage rock they’ve been feeding us steadily over the last 10 years.
Arguably one of the biggest changes and best moves The Black Keys have made in the last few years was recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their records. After producing their first few records entirely on their own, Danger Mouse first got behind the boards for 2008’s “Attack and Release”, which actually yielded moderate success and some radio airplay with singles like “I Got Mine” and the psychedelic “Strange Times”. Though a slight variation on the style they had established with their previous records, “Attack and Release” was ultimately a strong example of a band still largely within the clutches of a creative slump. The hip hop infused Blakroc certainly suggested there was more to the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney than previously believed, but the boys were also having some personal issues that fueled the sonic stagnation. After taking some time away from the band and pursuing other projects, they reconnected and rebuilt their relationship with one another. Their last album was titled “Brothers” to emphasize that they continue to love one another in spite of the difficulties they sometimes face. The record itself was also a bit of a challenge as well, but more in how it tackled preconceptions of the “Black Keys sound” and worked to revamp them. They had clearly learned something from their time with Danger Mouse and it showed both with slight twists on their style as well as a renewed energy that had been largely lost after 2004’s “Rubber Factory”. And while success certainly followed along with that, the record was still a bit clogged up with 15 tracks and a running time of nearly an hour. Sometimes careful editing and cutting the wheat from the chaff can be a good thing. Almost as if they’ve been listening to their critics, “El Camino” spans 11 tracks and 37 minutes, attempts to expand on the best elements of “Brothers” and appears to have forgotten that chaff even exists.
Given that “Tighten Up” was the big song that catapulted The Black Keys to a whole new level of popularity and it also happened to be the only track on their last record produced by Danger Mouse, the band sought to recreate that success across the entirety of “El Camino” by putting all of those elements together once again. The result is the band’s most energetic, poppy and generally fun record to date. Those concerned a buzzy earworm like “Lonely Boy” might be a lone standout needn’t worry. So many times on past records the band has tried to temper their approach by throwing a few quieter or more spacey psychedelic numbers into the mix, and more often than not those wind up being the weak spots. The only slow thing you’ll find on the new album comes courtesy of “Little Black Submarines”, which starts with just a plain acoustic guitar and some world-weary blues vocals, providing a nice respite from the ramshackle rock and roll of the first three tracks. The break only lasts a couple minutes though, because by the halfway point the electric guitars wake up with an intense fury that goes unrivaled on the rest of the record. Just because nothing else on the record slams quite as hard, don’t go thinking that the band’s fuzz pedal isn’t cranked up to 11 most of the time or that there’s not a whole lot of ballsy rock songs on “El Camino”. “Dead and Gone” hammers down a martial drum beat and then accents it with some xylophone, handclaps and a choir to back up Auerbach in the chorus. The choir and handclaps hold strong on “Gold On the Ceiling”, which incorporates some synths and has the chug of “Howlin’ for You” but plays it to more of a glam rock effect. The hard crunch of “Money Maker” has the heft and subject matter to soundtrack not only a million pole dances at your local strip club, but probably a couple dozen movie scenes in which some sexy girl character is introduced and you watch all the guys lower their sunglasses down their noses to get a better glimpse as she strolls by in slow motion. Yes, that scene happens in like half the movies released each year.
The second half of “El Camino” plays out a lot like the first, with plenty more riffage and uptempo numbers, though the use of the choir as backing vocals becomes far less prevalent. As the album works its way towards the finish line, there are moments that feel a little repetitive. “Hell of a Season” isn’t a bad song, but comes off almost like The Black Keys on autopilot. They’ve done songs like it before and will probably do songs like it again. The same can be said for the final two songs, “Nova Baby” and “Mind Eraser”, the latter of which might as well function exactly as its title suggests. The oft-repeated hook in that last song, and ultimately the last words spoken on the entire record are, “Don’t let it be over”. For something that started off so promising, by the time the full 37 minutes are up there’s this unerring sense that wrapping it up is probably a good thing. Basically the record teeters on the edge of becoming too long in spite of being one of the band’s shorter efforts. It’s that constant drive just hitting you over and over again with fuzzy guitars that pretty much tires you out. It is worth noting there are some fun second half bits. Carney gives his kit a severe lashing on “Sister”, which also happens to be one of the record’s bluesier cuts with a buzzing guitar and some sparkling keyboards snaking their way between the chords that make up the overall base melody. The light as a feather “Stop Stop” is a whole lot of fun as well, largely excelling thanks to some well-placed xylophone in the chorus. It’s a great late album reminder that the band does oh so much right on this record.
There’s a very good chance “El Camino” is the finest Black Keys record to date. To some of their most fervent supporters, i.e. all those “passionate” people that suddenly became aware of the band through “Brothers” and now call them “the new White Stripes”, this is the justification they’re looking for. Commercially speaking, there’s not a bad song on here. You could name virtually any track a single and it will do well on radio and in concert. That’s kind of the point, right? This is what the Black Keys wanted, or at least what their army of fans demanded of them. They are a better band because of this record, even if it distills their all-too-familiar sound and rather bland lyrics down to their core elements. This is the quintessential Black Keys album. Now that they’ve reached such a career peak, let’s hope they know what to do with it.