Is it me, or did the Black Keys’ popularity all but explode in the past two years? For a good long run through most of the century’s first decade, the pride of Akron garnered a sizeable fanbase by pumping out consistently formidable blues-rock, brittle and brash enough to distinguish itself from that other Midwestern blues-rock duo, but not quite idiosyncratic enough to step outside of their candy cane-colored shadow. Then, Danger Mouse jumps on board to produce 2008’s critically acclaimed Attack & Release, and a mere three years later, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are taking home gramophone statues, playing arena gigs, and making two SNL appearances in less than 12 months.
Perhaps bringing in half of Gnarls Barkley to produce an album wasn’t as much of a game changer for the Keys as I’m positing, but it’s hard to refute that the band’s current status as a marquee act is a far cry from where we found them in 2003, circa Thickfreakness. Most recently, the band willfully opted out of streaming their new El Camino record to buzzworthy sites like Spotify, apparently out of deference to their Warner Brothers-owned record label, Nonesuch. It appears indie rock has hit the big leagues.
Since nearly all of media attention directed at the group as of late has concerned itself with the promotional side of the Black Keys’ enterprise, it’s become easy to overlook the music itself – that swaggering, sweaty fusion of garage rock attitude and bluesy vehemence that is their stock in trade. The grooves are propulsive, the guitar riffs are memorable, and the melodies all but perspire with commercial appeal. Attack & Release was a moodier affair than previous Keys albums, sporting a dash of ominous atmosphere, whereas last year’s follow-up Brothers LP harkened back to the friends’ raucous early records. Riding that record’s continued wave of momentum, we now have El Camino a mere 18 months later, a record that – true to claims – is a concise “all killer no filler” amalgam of rousing classic rock and burnished pop production. With lead single “Lonely Boy” excepted, there aren’t any standout tracks here, but nor are there any duds. The result is 38 minutes of fiery and freewheeling fun, designed by two guys who actually make a road trip in a 1992 Dodge Caravan sound like a delightful idea.
Every song on El Camino comes with a certain level of bravado. The aforementioned “Lonely Boy” melds rootsy lyrics (“I got a love that keeps me waitin’”) with twangy guitar stabs and a two-step dance appeal that should already be obvious to anyone who’s seen the tune’s accompanying music video. “Dead and Gone” sports plenty of lo-fi fuzz, wiry guitar licks, and Auerbach’s soulful croon. “Don’t you drag me along,” he pleads over a thumping bass drum and tambourine rhythm. “Gold on the Ceiling” connotes a Stevie Wonder influence with its synthesizer harmonies and female backup vocals. “Little Black Submarine” takes unabashed direction from both the Beatles and Tom Petty, going from Macca-styled acoustic balladry (“But everybody knows / a broken heart is blind”) to distorted catharsis faster than you can say “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
And so it goes. There are moments of unexpected nuance – the “Thriller” synths of “Sister” and Auerbach’s talk box solo in “Money Maker” come to mind – but all in all, El Camino sticks to a tried and true template of brazen impulsivity that’s been explored by generations of rock bands, often with the same commercial viability the Keys are now experiencing. When the boys decide to either take their foot off the gas or let the fuel run out, it will be interesting to see where we find them on the map.