Review: “El Camino” electrifies fans old and new

By Andy Cason

Over the past three years, The Black Keys have proved that they are one of those few exceptional rock bands who can walk the thin line of fame by becoming widely popular without betraying their already loyal fans. Their newly released album, “El Camino,” is a tribute to the band’s drive to innovate the now deflating rock genre without compromising their base of rock lovers. In a music market dominated by Biebers and Gagas, The Black Keys give all us rockers the hope for another much needed renaissance.

“El Camino” has set the bar. It is their most substantial release since their 2003 album, Thickfreakness, and is almost a complete transformation from their 2010 Grammy winning release of Brothers and their earlier albums, which were made with an old tape deck recorder in the basement of drummer Patrick Carney’s house in Akron, OH. “El Camino” boasts more influences than anything the Keys have done before; a pure rumpus rapture with gentle subtleties, mixing soul, glam and classic rock, but what remains still is that trademark electric buzz of distorted blues guitar riffs, provided by Dan Auerbach, and Carney’s archaic rhythms.

The album is littered with accents by their producer, Danger Mouse, who has most notably worked with artists such as Cee Lo Green and Gnarls Barkley and also teamed up with James Mercer from renown indie band The Shins to form the band Broken Bells. Danger Mouse gives “El Camino” a polished and smooth finish that almost sparkles with glamorous notes from the xylophone and soulful background singers as heard in the second track, “Dead and Gone,” this stands in stark contrast to their earlier albums that lean heavily on a tarnished, less refined quality that gives their songs a rough rock and roll edge and a sense of bluesy authenticity.

The real accomplishment of “El Camino” lies in the fact that The Keys remain loyal to their rock roots but flexible enough to let in more influences. Older fans won’t feel alienated by the new sound but will embrace it as a great innovation to an already beloved group.  This new sound and their commercial success (their songs can now be heard on many TV commercials) were of course accompanied by grumbles by critics in the indie scene (See Pitchfork’s Review) but Auerbach and Carney have in interviews retorted that they simply needed the money.

The Black Keys have evoked the spirit of our times. Our generation faces a post-modern challenge that says ecclesiastically that ‘everything has already been done,’ but The Keys embody the antithesis of such thinking. The sudden explosions and excessive pounding of the drums (see track four – “Little Black Submarines”) seem to be a gesture of frustration at this symptom of our irony-soaked generation’s apathy – a genuine plea to ‘feel something!’ It is almost like The Keys music is speaking from a point of time in the past when passion and ideas still where relevant. We cannot hear their voices without some interference, (hence the distortion

of Auerbach’s voice), which gives the effect that he is speaking to us from across the divide from an old radio receiver, heralding a new hope for inventiveness and authenticity.

The presentation of the album itself is a nod to their humble beginnings when the duo would tour in a Chrysler Town and Country van. The Album packaging and sleeve is comprised of the only pictures of beat-up old Chrysler vans parked in front of low-income suburbs and strip-malls in Akron, OH – reminiscent of the decaying ideal of small town main streets. It displays the reality that the majority of us are living with today and the uncompromising and the Keys unembarrassed effort to show it. I am sure many would agree: not many people would like to be seen driving one of these vans but that is the point. The Black Keys are showing unapologetically their, and many middle to lower class American’s, unglamorized reality and glorifying it. Isn’t that what the blues and rock and roll are really about?