Perennially late-to-the-party blues-rockers The Black Keys have had a strange ride to the top, paved with zine cred, the charred remains of the early ’00s “garage-rock” boon, and dogged, largely unsubstantial White Stripes comparisons. As worn as The (Color) (Objects) formula of band-namery may be, the Keys just may be the last band standing as far as that brief revival is concerned – at least now that Jack and Meg have parted ways and nobody cares about The Vines anymore – and they rose to the occasion ably with last year’s Brothers. Their latest, El Camino, is a slight step backwards – not necessarily in quality, but in sound – and it’s enough to make those scuzzy, re-purposed Stooges riffs that we all went wacky over in 2001 sound positively vital again.
There’s no two ways about it: after conquering the world with Brothers singles “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You”, the Keys have retreaded a bit from their newly polished, groove-oriented sound. Longtime producer Danger Mouse is back behind the boards, and his work might seem downright subtle if you weren’t aware that the Keys are just two guys; while Dan Auerbach’s undoctored yawp and fuzzbox guitar chords and Patrick Carney’s chest-rattling drums are front and center, there are lots of extra flourishes here that really fill out the corners of this quick ‘n dirty platter, from layered vocals to ’60s soul organs. And handclaps; lots of handclaps.
All told, the Keys aren’t really reinventing the wheel here; they’ve trod a fine line, time and again, between exciting originality and retro revivalism, and El Camino skews definitively towards the latter. Respectively, “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Mind Eraser” essentially repackage their own hits “Howlin’ For You” and “Tighten Up”, down to the drum patterns and vocal cadences. It may seem a tad crass, particularly with those two hits lingering relatively fresh in listeners’ minds, but the Keys’ style lends itself well to such cut-and-pastery, and “Mind Eraser” is such a tasty little jam that it’s hardly worth criticizing in the face of that groove. Elsewhere, “Lonely Boy” opens the record with a Marc Bolan-worthy slab of scuzz jam – featuring a delicious renegade organ that swoops in to steal the show – and “Little Black Submarines” apes “Stairway To Heaven” for its first two minutes before it transforms into a raucous jam based on the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. This isn’t to imply that the riff sounds similar to “Mary Jane”; it’s quite literally the exact riff, tone, timing, all of it. If the song weren’t so raucously lovable, the swipe would seem callous and entirely knuckleheaded.
But such is the Black Keys in their more primal moments; they’re often more interested in retro revivalism than forging new paths, and God bless ’em for it. El Camino is quick, lecherous, and more than a little bit goofy. Amidst such fun, musical fusion can take a backseat and wait its turn.
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