El Camino

The Black Keys

Nonesuch, 2011


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Saying you watch Stephen Colbert for the music is kind of like saying you buy Playboy for the articles.

Regardless, it was The Black Keys’ performance on The Colbert Report earlier this year that convinced me to give these guys a shot, and I’m not sorry.

The first thing that almost has to be said in any writer’s initial Black Keys review is this: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are not ripping off the White Stripes. Not even close. Yes, Auerbach sings and plays dirty guitar with flashes of Jimmy Page-like intensity, and yes, Carney plays nothing but drums and plays them big and loud. Both groups favor a decidedly low-fi, garage-y vibe. But where the Whites were a virtual two-person Zeppelin tribute band with an avant-garde, artsy sensibility, the Keys mine earthier turn-of-the-’70s sounds, layering on analog synths and bass and digging a series of hard, greasy grooves that locate the undiscovered nexus between the MC5 and Marvin Gaye.

Opener/single “Lonely Boy” takes threads of garage rock, ZZ Top Texas boogie, low-fi DIY and glammy analog synths, adds double-time drumming and a chorus of female background vocals on the chorus, and builds a thundering engine of cool. By the time the boys finished powering through this one on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Colbert, I knew this album was in my future.

Things get even more interesting right away, as “Dead And Gone” features a deep r&b groove, Motown bells and Hammond and airy background vocals, complemented by ragged garage guitar and Auerbach’s desperate blues-shouter vocals. “Gold On The Ceiling” cements the impression of varied influences having their DNA recombined in fascinating ways with acoustic rhythm guitar, greasy T.Rex lead guitar, thrashy drums and seedy hipster-cool synths.  The airy pre-chorus sets you up again and again for the gang-vocal chorus and tight, raging guitar solos that follow. Think Booker T & the MGs with Page sitting in, the Supremes singing backup, and everyone on acid.

“Little Black Submarines” is the one place where you really have to give a nod to the Zeppelin/Stripes influence, given that it’s a virtual “Stairway To Heaven” homage, acoustic opening building to a huge chorus backed by thundering twenty-foot waves of guitar and drums. It’s great tune, though, the longest on the album at 4:11, and yet it feels like it goes by in a flash.

From there you get variations on the same purposefully weird mélange of musical styles. “Money Maker” is a big, chugging rocker with menacing rhythms and a dash of talkbox at the crest of the wave. “Run Right Back” is wildman funk, full of the ramshackle exuberance that fuels the Keys’ music. “Sister” makes me think of T. Rex, albeit with a shimmery Motown vibe behind the fat rock rhythm section and pseudo-hipster retro synths. “Stop Stop” features a loping rhythm, bells and falsetto “yeah yeah”s right out of the Berry Gordy playbook.

“Mind Eraser” close things out in suitably apocalyptic fashion, with Carney slamming away Bonham-style on the opening while Auerbach decorates the upper end with eerie, fat chords, before the track settles into a deep r&b groove.

Danger Mouse, who coproduced with Auerbach and Carney, gives El Camino a spacious feel that allows the individual instruments room to breathe and be heard, accentuating both the essential drive behind the music and the unique way these arrangements blend diverse influences. Low-fi savant Tchad Blake mixed most of the album, weaving Mouse’s analog-funk keys over and under Auerbach’s stabbing guitar lines and Carney’s cavernous backbeats.

El Camino is a wild ride well worth taking, a headtrip into a musical parallel universe where Jimmy Page was obsessed with Motown and Texas boogie grooves instead of Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. Thanks for taking me there, Stephen Colbert.

Rating: A-

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© 2012 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Nonesuch, and is used for informational purposes only.