THE BLACK KEYS: EL CAMINO (2011)
1) Lonely Boy; 2) Dead And Gone; 3) Gold On The Ceiling; 4) Little Black Submarines; 5) Money Maker; 6) Run Right Back; 7) Sister; 8) Hell Of A Season; 9) Stop Stop; 10) Nova Baby; 11) Mind Eraser.
This record should dissipate any doubts as to whether The Black Keys might eventually shed their garage-blues-rock skin without compromising their very reason for existence. If Brothers could have us feeling uneasy about that, El Camino rights all wrongs — simply by being the band's best album since... well, I have never ever been that excited about The Black Keys ever since I first took a listen to The Big Come Up.
With the continuing help of Danger Mouse (who is now not only co-producing the record, but is also listed as co-writer on all the songs), the band puts the finishing touches on its new sound, and that means removing all limits. Yes, you will hear echos of ELO and ABBA on this record instead of echos of John Lee Hooker, and this means that the band is bound to lose some of its hardcore fans: I can easily see where 'Sister' would be taken as an offensive sellout by those who swore undying allegiance to 'Run Me Down' nine years earlier. Which should merely serve as a warning — temporary pacts are usually wiser than undying allegiances.
But never fear, El Camino is still quintessentially a brutal, brawny rock album, with a serious chunk of its new numbers sounding as minor (but almost always useful) variations on tunes from the band's minimalist period. It's just that they're done with the minimalism (for now). Instrumental credits are still running very low (Danger Mouse is credited for keyboards, and there are three female singers on backup vocals), but the sound still comes out as their fullest and densest yet, and now they have learned to take advantage of this fullness — drawing upon a varied bag of tricks to make each song stand out in a different way.
Auerbach's heavy guitar sound is still the leader of the trend: no longer an absolute dictator, but the album's lead-in track and first hit single, 'Lonely Boy', still opens with a burly riff — one that seems to have been born as a «Danny Auerbach does Marc Bolan doing Cliff Gallup» sort of thing: big, catchy, rebellious, and fun. With Danger Mouse's anthemic keyboards and the backup girls joining in on the chorus, 'Lonely Boy' gets a glam-rock coating that, like the best of 1970s glam-rock, never loses its rock'n'roll heart under the glitz. Furthermore, it even preserves a bit of Auerbach's trademark soulful longing — instead of the tongue-in-cheek smarty-pants arrogance that used to make intelligent glam-rock sound too cynical and «nihilist» for many people. El Camino may be glitzy, but it is never «hip».
Furthermore, the radical shift of sound seems to have revitalized Auerbach into writing lots of good, if predictably derivative, melodies — and it helps that the album is not as drawn out as Brothers, because there ain't no filler anywhere in sight. The few barebones numbers that remain still rock out as crazy ('Money Maker' is another one of those Nuggets-style nuggets whose riff you swear you've heard a million times, yet cannot remember a single song which uses exactly the same chord sequence; 'Mind Eraser' somehow manages a shiver-sending effect with its ominous "oh, don't let it be over" chorus). And, on the other end of the spectrum, the Keys' most daring shifts in style are just as good. 'Sister' is high-caliber retro-1970s pop-rock with a falsetto chorus, one of the best songs Jeff Lynne never wrote even though he had every chance of doing so. 'Nova Baby' shamelessly steals part of its vocal melody from ABBA's 'Lay All Your Love On Me' ("you walk around in other towns" = "I wasn't jealous before we met", etc.), but sets it in an anthemic power-pop context that works in an entirely different way.
Even in between those two extremes, diversity is the word of day. 'Little Black Submarines' begins as a touching folk ballad, then, midway through, transforms into a bombastic grunge number with quasi-psychedelic backing whoah-whoah vocals. 'Gold On The Ceiling' is stomp-your-feet boogie-rock accompanied with an electronic harpsichord. 'Dead And Gone' takes the martial pounding of 'London Calling' and imbues it with a broken-hearted love-crazy atmosphere. The same atmosphere resurfaces on 'Run Right Back', but this time punctuated with an unforgettable weepy slide riff. And so on.
Summing up, I may not have heard all that many albums from 2011, but El Camino must unquestionably be one of the year's best — if only due to its consistency in surprising the mind and uplifting the spirit. And, to me, it is final and irrefutable proof that Auerbach is «the real thing», because his music turns out to be living and breathing even when its surface is muddled with all these extra, and, upon first sight, superfluous flourishes. I mean, when a guy plays distorted guitar music à la John Lee Hooker and sings in a growly voice, that alone can seduce «seekers of the truth» into accepting the guy as a mini-Messiah — no matter how inventive or individualistic the actual songs may be. But when the song is given an odd, «unsuitable» musical coating, and still remains inventive and individualistic, you know you're dealing with something real good.
And, if nothing goes wrong, I bet we can expect many more surprises from The Black Keys for years to come (especially considering that the breakup potential for a band that consists of two members is fairly low). In the meantime, thumbs up for El Camino as, I repeat, one of 2011's best, regardless of whether I have heard 10 or 1,000 albums from said year.
Check "El Camino" (CD) on Amazon
Check "El Camino" (MP3) on Amazon