The Black Keys: El Camino

(Article first published as Music Review: The Black Keys - El Camino on Blogcritics.)

Do you remember the Chevy El Camino? It was what they called a “coupe utility vehicle.” The two-passenger cabin felt like a luxury ride, but the back was an exposed flatbed, like the mullet hairstyle reversed, but not as repellent. The first generation of El Caminos, unveiled in the late ‘50s, fit the suburban flash of the times: long, gliding design, not without elegance, but not flaunting too much.

The late ‘70s iteration of the El Camino was kind of comic. The slightly descending angle of the back of the cab was still there, but the tail fins were gone. It was frequently produced with a two-tone color scheme, sometimes even wood paneling. The ‘70s El Camino couldn’t decide whether it was a sports car or a pickup; it may have even had station-wagon tendencies. It was the first American automobile in which a personality crisis came standard. The most awkward car not made by American Motors (they of Gremlin fame), the El Camino was nonetheless one of the coolest cars one could drive.

The Black Keys titled their new album, El Camino, after the Chevy El Camino, only because they thought the name sounded cool. That’s not even an El Camino on the cover. But it channels the vibe of the ‘70s generation of El Caminos all the way. Building off the naturalism of their last, breakthrough album, Brothers, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney called upon revisionist producer Danger Mouse to reinterpret ‘70s rock, without compromising their blues and R&B core. That compromise was typical of late ‘70s classic rock, as guitarists weaned on blues, R&B and early rock and roll had to amend themselves to keep in line with slicker production values. Think of the Stones’ “Miss You” or The J. Geils Band’s “Flamethrower.” Both are good songs, but are not representative of where the bands came from.

On El Camino, Auerbach and Carney absorb those moments, extract the strut and melodies, and throw it right back.  It’s a trick that lazier talents would have accomplished with heavy doses of irony, but the Keys are way too affectionate for that. El Camino has Auerbach slamming robust riffs in a confident, personal way, trying to fit a stadium rock sound into a walk-in refrigerator. It’s an easily adaptable sound, cutting across all rhythms from the scoot-shuffling “Lonely Boy” to the glam-rock throwback “Gold On The Ceiling.” The wild abandon also makes the very predictable trick in “Little Black Submarines” — part one acoustic Zeppelin folk, part two thunderous electric restatement — giddy and irresistible.

The Keys’ nod to mutant, late '70s album-oriented rock is especially subtle and gratifying. “Run Right Back” owes a melodic debt to, of all things, Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice,” but makes it rawer. When they flirt with rhythms just an open high-hat short of disco on “Sister” and “Nova Baby,” the Keys always bring the music back to the grit of Auerbach’s sharp guitars and Carney’s insistent drumming. There are sly keyboard quotations on “Hell Of A Season” and "Stop Stop" — Danger Mouse’s contribution, I'm guessing — but they're a shading device. The technology doesn’t hold any song hostage, which is what ruined, say, (Jefferson) Starship. Hindsight has its advantages.

El Camino has the ambling swagger of a 19-year-old kid who’s only just realized he has the capacity to be cool. Entirely upbeat except for half of one song, it’s the Black Keys’ most logical next step on their passage from American roots to rock splendor. Now that a popular audience has finally caught up to the Black Keys, they’re hitting the gas.
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