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Album Review: The Black Keys – El Camino [Nonesuch]

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.

Preorder “El Camino” from Amazon

Live Friday: 9-10-10

This week’s edition of Live Friday is proud to feature a session from Akron, Ohio’s own Black Keys. The band released their sixth and newest album “Brothers” back in May to what’s ultimately continued critical acclaim. Sure, it may not be the greatest Black Keys record, but it does feel like a return to their bluesy form after the much more psychedelic turn they took on 2008’s “Attack and Release”. The album was recorded at a few studios around the country, including the legendary Muscle Shoals in Alabama and The Bunker in Brooklyn. The band talks a little bit about that during the interview portion of the session, which is available to stream via the link below. But one of the more recent developments in The Black Keys’ camp is that singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach had built his own studio in their hometown of Akron. Ostensibly the band no longer needs to use any other studio when making albums, and they have the convenience of being able to use it 24/7 free of charge. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re going to always use the new studio, and they can also have a little fun with it by inviting people over to hang out while they play some songs. That’s what much of this session is. Recorded the week that “Brothers” was released to stores, the band plays four songs from the album at the unofficially titled “Auerbach Studios”. The Black Keys are known to be a vibrant and exciting live act, and touring around this record they’ve gone from a duo to a foursome just to help flesh out the song arrangements a little bit more. It shows in this session, which is nothing short of excellent. Download the songs, stream the interview, and have a great weekend.

The Black Keys, Live at Dan Auerbach’s studio, 5-20-10:
The Black Keys – Too Afraid To Love (Live at Auerbach Studios)
The Black Keys – Tighten Up (Live at Auerbach Studios)
The Black Keys – Everlasting Light (Live at Auerbach Studios)
The Black Keys – Howlin’ For You (Live at Auerbach Studios)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “Brothers” from Amazon

Album Review: The Black Keys – Brothers [Nonesuch]

We are quickly approaching the 10 year anniversary of the birth of The Black Keys as a band, and during that time they’ve been remarkably productive. The duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have together released 6 albums if you include their new one “Brothers”, and that’s coming off a year-long break from the band where both guys went off and did their own things. Auerbach released a solo album that was basically another Black Keys record in disguise, while Carney got together with a group of fellow percussionists and created the beat-centric band Drummer. Back from their brief separation, despite essentially working the entire time, The Black Keys are returning a refreshed and reinvigorated band looking to reclaim the loose and fun blues revivalist sound that made their first few records so compelling.

With their 2008 album “Attack & Release”,. Auerbach and Carney practically admitted their sound had grown stale after four albums, so they hired Danger Mouse to shake things up a little bit and bring some of that edge back. The experiment wasn’t an unmitigated failure by most standards, and it did take the band away from their heavy blues influences for a moment to incorporate some psychedelic elements. Danger Mouse isn’t helping out with “Brothers”, but The Black Keys haven’t entirely forgotten a few of the tricks they learned from him. They continue to incorporate some hazy, drug-fueled bits on this new record, though the overall sound is far more easygoing and old school than anything else. Auerbach continues to stir up some seriously fierce guitar work while Carney’s rhythms remain some of the best around these days. The small innovations they have made for “Brothers” include an increased reliance on organ and piano, as well as the incorporation of harpsichord for “Too Afraid To Love You”. Auerbach also breaks out a brand new secret weapon in the form of a falsetto that he’s apparently been hiding all this time, which is surprisingly strong and compelling. It adds a new dimension to songs like “Everlasting Light” and “The Only One”. Where that really shines though is on their cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which becomes nearly indistinguishable from the original. They were smart to avoid trying to make the song their own or improving upon it, as you don’t mess with perfection. And that the song passes by and fits in so perfectly with the rest of the album is just another sign of how The Black Keys aren’t so much ripping off past records but instead making music that’s of no particular time and place – it sounds good in any era.

The real tragedy with “Brothers”, if you can call it a tragedy, is that it once again shows that The Black Keys aren’t exactly interested in taking many chances. If you pick up any Black Keys album, there are certain markers you expect them to hit, and they almost always do. Their fuzzed out, swampy blues sound has carried them across these 6 records and they don’t appear to want to do a whole lot to change that. Given that most of those albums have turned out quite well though makes their lack of ambition more respectable, because you don’t always need to mess with success. “Brothers” may not be the best record The Black Keys have ever done, but it is more of a return to form after their last couple albums took much darker and more serious tones. Hell, if the cover art announcing “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” doesn’t make you crack at least a little bit of a smile, perhaps the music video for “Next Girl” which features Frank the Dinosaur puppet will. The album thankfully maintains that looser and goofier vibe and is better for it. For those familiar with previous Black Keys albums, “Brothers” won’t change your opinion of them either way, but it just might attract some new fans to the fold. That’s about all they can ask for this far along in their careers, though you have to start wondering exactly when the bottom is going to drop out on these guys and they become just another band settling for being average rather than continuing to try and expand upon what they’ve already done.

Buy “Brothers” from Amazon

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