Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Music Review: El Camino by The Black Keys

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Sometimes it takes me awhile to warm up to an album. In extreme cases, it can take years. Then there’s El Camino by The Black Keys, out today. I went into spastic revelry (right in my office chair) the moment the opening riff of “Lonely Boy” blasted out of my speakers. (Sorry for the visual there, folks…) This is seriously catchy, head-bobbing, rock ‘n’ roll drawing from blues, soul, R&B, and garage rock – and a worthy follow-up to last year’s popular Brothers.

The aforementioned “Lonely Boy” is a fabulous beginning, a slice of funky rock that opens with a bone-grinding riff. “Gold on the Ceiling” is a fine bit of white-soul complete with retro synthesizer, crunching guitar riff, and singalong chorus. “Hell of a Season” sounds like the offspring of The Knack’s “My Sharona” and London Calling-era The Clash (a good thing in this case).

As you might expect from a drums/guitar duo, drums and guitars dominate the mix. This is one secret to The Black Keys’ unique sound (occasionally reminiscent of another guitar/drums duo, The White Stripes). Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) produced (as well as receiving writing and keyboard credits) and his approach is perfectly balanced: a meaty, full sound.

Patrick Carney’s rock-steady, uncomplicated beat (sometimes augmented by hand claps) provides the perfect foundation for Dan Auerbach’s chunky riffs and funky stylings. The rolling snare and cymbal work that accompanies “Stop Stop” is an example of Carney’s restraint and subtlety in service of the song. When the duo head off into more complex territory (such as in the middle of “Little Black Submarines” when what had been a quiet acoustic song is suddenly set on fire by grinding chords, a violent guitar squeal and whip-like drum fills), it’s always the right choice.

Auerbach has an ear for the riff. These aren’t fancy or groundbreaking, but they always sound right for the song. Just listen to the start of “Money Maker.” It’s a simple riff, filling in the beat and perfectly distorted. It gives the song its voice.

“Run Right Back” features an impressively Neil Young-like whining guitar lead before breaking forth with a galloping beat. “Mind Eraser” brings the album to a slinky close with Auerbach’s guitar playing a riff that one would normally expect to hear on horns.

With less than a month to go, this album has shot instantly into my top 10 for the year. If you don’t find yourself bobbing your head to this music, check for a pulse!

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