One of the most interesting and telling aspects of artists and bands is how they evolve over the course of their career. There are some that really don’t stray too far from the sound that they are known for, while others are willing to take chances on every new album. And then there are those that start at one place and slowly change over time, not making too many drastic changes, instead implementing new ideas, sounds, and styles into their main arsenal. These bands are true artists, building a portfolio that shows their versatility and adaptability as they progress over their career. I consider The Black Keys to be one of these bands.
I’ve been a fan of The Black Keys since 2004, when my cousin, Graham, introduced me to them; his band, Tall Days, emulated the style and setup of the TBK. At that point in time, the band was very much a hard-rocking blues duo (members Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney), and weren’t that well known. Fast-forward to the present day, and the duo are now superstars selling millions of copies of their records and winning Grammys. As a long-time fan, it is nice to see a band that I have always supported finally get their deserved accolades, even if it means that they have fans that don’t appreciate their entire catalog and will likely never play smaller, more intimate venues again (seriously, an arena tour?). Yet, the most satisfying and enjoyable part of being a fan of The Black Keys has been seeing/hearing how they have improved and built upon each album, and overall growing and maturing as a band.
Their newest release, El Camino, is truly the culmination of their career up this point in time. It encompasses aspects of every release before it, specifically building upon its predecessor, Brothers. Where Brothers was directly influenced by and built upon the hip-hop, funk, and soul of the band’s side project, Blakroc, El Camino is more of amalgam of all aspects of their entire library. And even though the album was co-produced by Danger Mouse, this effort is much different than their previous Danger Mouse produced album, Attack and Release. Rather than sonically ambient, pseudo-psychedelic tunes, El Camino is filled with compact, riff-based songs that pack a quick, energetic punch, all packaged in a beautiful retro-styled production.
Overall, I really enjoy the album. It’s energetic and powerful, and filled with Patrick Carney’s hard-pounding drums and tons of Dan Auerbach’s heavy guitar work, both classic elements of The Black Keys. The opening track, and first single, “Lonely Boy,” epitomizes this feel, truly kick-starting the album. The song also has a few other elements that permeate through most of the album.
The first is the heavy presence of dance-rock. Some of the songs on the album, including “Dead and Gone,” “Run Right Back,” “Hell of a Season,” and “Nova Baby,” have a quarter-note driven feel, which is something that has rarely been heard on a TBK album before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is rather interesting. I say this because the band always seemed to buck current trends and just do their own thing, rather than try to get into the common fold that was/is present in the music industry. If anything, it shows that the band is willing to continue to change things up from there classic sound, something that was heavily evident on both Attack and Release and Brothers.
The second is the soulfulness of Auerbach’s voice. Throughout the early stages of TBK’s career, Dan Auerbach’s voice fit perfectly with the band’s style of heavy blues. If anything, it was, for me, one of the aspects of the band that set it apart from The White Stripes (another heavy blues-rock duo, if you didn’t know that already), because Auerbach sounded more authentically bluesy than Jack White (listen to “Grown So Ugly” as an example). Though the band’s style of music changed on Brothers, Auerbach’s voice continued to compliment the music, likely due to the fact those songs were still heavily based in blues and soul. On El Camino, however, his voice seems to contrast the style of the aforementioned dance-rock songs, but somehow enhances each one. It may be due to the fact that so many dance-rock band vocalists lack soulfulness, but Auerbach’s voice adds a new twist on the style of music giving it much more depth that I have heard (granted I don’t listen to much dance-rock).
While I still feel that this album is not superior to Rubber Factory or Brothers, there are a few songs that are stellar. The aforementioned “Lonely Boy” is one of them. Another is “Gold on the Ceiling,” which sounds like combination of The White Stripes, My Morning Jacket, classic blues, and 60s garage rock, creating a semi-schizophrenic feel that just grabs you with so much intensity and groove. “Stop Stop,” could’ve easily been on Brothers, having heavy overtones of classic Motown with its incredibly simple, yet effective, hook, and wonderfully orchestrated instrumentation (or maybe it’s just the use of a glockenspiel). Honestly, this is my favorite song on the album.
Then there is “Little Black Submarines.” I don’t want to steal AllMusic.com’s thunder, but they were spot on when they said it is “an acoustic number that crashes into Zeppelin heaviosity as it reaches its coda…” The song begins with Auerbach on acoustic guitar before he starts singing. The song begins to build after the first chorus, with the addition of light percussion and an electric piano. And then an organ comes in, sounding just like John Paul Jones on many a song by Led Zeppelin, and then fades away. Suddenly, the spirit of Jimmy Page takes over Auerbach and makes him play some Tom Petty, as the ghost of John Bonham infects Patrick Carney, making him beat the crap out of his drums in epic fashion. Seriously, the song sounds like The Black Keys rewrote Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” with the chord structure of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” by Tom Petty, and injected it with a fuzz pedal. It’s a great song, but for me, it’s hard to get over how eerily similar it sounds to those two songs (mainly the latter).
It seems that the days of The Black Keys producing heavy, garage blues albums like The Big Come Up, thickfreakness, Rubber Factory, and Magic Potion are gone, at least for the foreseeable future. And while I love those albums, I have embraced the now evolving sound of the band with open arms, and have enjoyed every minute. El Camino is just another point in the overall evolution of The Black Keys, that not only shows that the band can change up their sound, but they can do it without sacrificing the quality of their music. And though the band has exploded into superstardom, I will continue to support them with passion…as long as their music continues to rock my face off.