Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Black Keys: "El Camino" (album review)

There are few success stories like that of The Black Keys.  Always a very good-to-great band, they have exploded in the last couple of years, seemingly without having to do anything they weren't going to do anyway.  It's as though the World were finally ready for them.

Now the World is ready for El Camino, the duo's seventh studio album and arguably the last meaningful release of 2011.  Mega-producer Danger Mouse was behind the console on this latest effort.

The first thing that strikes you about the new album is that production.  Many of the studio tricks that were layered on the Grammy-winning Brothers have been stripped away.  Not that this album is thin on sound.  Quite the contrary, it is a very vibrant and robust record.  However, there's an efficiency to the arrangements and production.  There are no wasted sounds.  Every element has a purpose.  

The hip hop dabbling seems to be out of The Black Keys' systems as well.  In it's place is a rich soulful texture that would almost make Raphael Saadiq envious.  A lot of that has to do with the prominence of backing vocals.  The female voice, stopping short of gospel, add a delightfully warm feeling to a track such as "Gold On the Ceiling".

The record boasts some healthy infectious grooves as well.  "Run Right Back" is a high-energy performance, but one with a compelling underlying hook.  A taste of Phil Spector girl groups drives the chorus of "Stop Stop".  It's a smoother sound on "Sister", but one that's no less mesmerizing.  With a slight nod to late night AM radio songs, it's a track that will have you perilously close to clapping your hands along.  That same AM sound isn't quite as effective on "Dead and Gone", coming across as schmaltzy rather than hip.

For those of you who are concerned, no The Black Keys have not completely abandoned their blues/garage rock roots.  The album opener "Lonely Boy" extinguishes those fears quickly as it opens with a bassline reminiscent of Nirvana's "School" before the keyboards crank up and the bouncing '50s R&B kicks in.  Pat Carney gets to flex his muscles on the cymbal-bashing "Money Maker".

Elsewhere "Little Black Submarines" begins it's life as a minimalist, subdued number, before breaking out, Led Zeppelin-style, into a mammoth anthem.  It's a surf rock influence that bubbles to the surface on "Hell of a Season".

It all adds up to make El Camino possibly The Black Keys most accessible and most cohesive album to date.  It should appeal to new and long-time fans alike.

The Black Keys play the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on March 14th.

Best tracks: "Gold On the Ceiling", "Run Right Back"

Track listing for El Camino:
  • Lonely Boy
  • Dead and Gone
  • Gold On the Ceiling
  • Little Black Submarines
  • Money Maker
  • Run Right Back
  • Sister
  • Hell of a Season
  • Stop Stop
  • Nova Baby
  • Mind Eraser

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