El Camino, The Black Keys‘ seventh LP, sounds nothing like its predecessor Brothers, the album that took them from secret gems to superstars. Tighten Up producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton returns for the entire ride this time, and it wasn’t a matter of adding color to a finished product; Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney entered the studio with nothing. They started from scratch, and the living blues legends from Akron have risen to meet the Gnarls knob turner with an album that hip-checks the sensational hit factory of Brothers for boundless pockets of catchiness and full-throttle gut-rock.
Front-end loaded by Carney’s best and most aggressive work on the kit thus far, the throttle of El Camino remains nearly constant throughout the record’s eleven tracks, and from the low-swinging shimmy of opener Lonely Boy to the percussive hammer-assault of Money Maker, the Keys have come dangerously close to making a dance record. On paper that may seem like a pretty fucked up turn, but rest assured, this is no Skrillex collaboration. What Auerbach and Carney have cooked up this time is so damned packed with hard-hitting but lighthearted psychedelia-toned goodness, you can’t help but shake your moneymaker.
The soulful R&B sheen of Brothers is conspicuously absent, replaced with 60s garage charm and Cramps-style rhythmic attitude with rockabilly frills. The melodic parallels between xylophone and vocals in Dead and Gone resurrect that 60s vibration, over extended-vowel sentiments in a verse that gives way to an irresistibly punchy & hand-clapping chorus current.
The hip-shaking retro sparkle is taken even further in the downright psychedelic sunshine of bass-bouncing Stop Stop. Carney’s beat designs are only slightly more impressive than the fact that he simply beats the almighty shit out of his kit, a perfect accompaniment to Auerbach’s invigorated fire.
Auerbach’s guitar is often used chiefly as a rhythmic device, as on the slow-chopping chill of Sister, with only abbreviated solo excursions. With a radio-bait chorus and head-nodding groove, the track’s strength lies in the smooth soul of Motown’s influence rising from the frigid atmosphere.
The shorthand acoustic Stairway design of Little Black Submarines undoubtedly earns deductions among Zeppelinophiles, but the progression is gorgeous beyond the point of absolution – all the way down to the fret vibration on the E note. At the halfway point, Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drums break out at a gallop, embracing the feathered hair era and turning the chorus to ten. The splicing of two versions of the song – electric and acoustic – is the perfect intensifying dynamic to truly earn the word epic. Hold those doubts till you see this monster unleashed onstage.
Nova Baby calls back a classic style, a soaring chorus bemoaning a hopeless love, while the garagey grind-surge of Gold On The Ceiling gets a supercharge from the squealing Jack White-ish stuttercraft guitar, given flecks of ethereal color by multiple female backing vocals and handclaps. It’s a blast of beauty, a muscle car ride with the top down on a cold desert morning, blindingly bright with beauty by your side.
That may be the core of El Camino‘s magic – the visceral connection, rather than the cerebral eclecticism that drove much of the previous record. It’s a record to bridge genres and generations, with enough rockabilly stomp-funk goodness to be precisely the right album after midnight with a few rolled, a few tipped and some good friends. Sounds like a modern classic to me.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.