The Black Keys, somewhat surprisingly, are quite adept at evolving their sound. I say ‘surprisingly’ because at their core they’ve always been a two-man electric blues group (drums and electric guitar). Their first few albums explored this, leading up to the dirty blues riffs of Rubber Factory. They had mastered building atmosphere out of their swirling sound of ferocious riffs and powerful drumming.
After Rubber Factory, they started exploring. Attack & Release was produced by famous indie hiphop producer Danger Mouse, who added bits of soul music to their sound, and even other instruments sometimes. Maybe The Keys weren’t just a blues group, but a retro group. Their next album, Brothers, was not produced by Danger Mouse, but was still a big success. These were very good records, but to me, both lacked the ferociousness of Rubber Factory. I bring this up not to criticize, but to compare: El Camino ecstatically brings that ferociousness back again.
This was immediately evident in the first moments, a nasty feedback-drenched riff that kicks off “Lonely Boy,” with explosive touches of keyboards, horns, background singers. The lyrics are standard blues: “I got a love that keeps me waiting,” but the impatient music undercuts that. The pounding drums of “Dead And Gone” come next and it is clear that this album will not relent. “I’ll go anywhere you go!” Dan Auerbach sings, and you know he will. El Camino has more memorable sing-along choruses than any other album this year, that’s for sure.
“Gold On The Ceiling” is another entirely nasty riff, enhanced by Danger Mouse’s electronic keyboards. Danger Mouse was actually a third member of The Black Keys, co-writing the songs on El Camino with them, as opposed to merely producing. Instead of just rawness, the three of them work to get the drama and sounds and moments just right. “Little Black Submarines” exemplifies this, beginning as a gorgeous acoustic track. It feels like a much-needed calm moment after the first three tracks, but that doesn’t last too long. It soon explodes like the rest of the songs: “Everybody knows that a broken heart is blind.” Even if these songs are less bluesy, per se, they still roar the blues as much as anything The Black Keys have ever done.
I could keep going on like this through the entire record, but by now the template is well-established, and the second half stays on track. In the same way Rubber Factory was a culmination of their blues rock trips, El Camino perfects their more recent retro soul rock blasts.
(also if you’d like, you can listen to all my 20 faves here on Spotify) (except The Black Keys…they decided not to let El Camino be streamable there)