The Black Keys play rock and they play it straight. It’s hard to believe in an age of hyphenated genres and digitally-tweaked songs that two guys, a guitar and some drums would have anything left to offer. But on their new album El Camino the Black Keys have managed to reinvigorate a genre that has subsisted on the same, recycled stale barroom air for decades.
The Keys’ back story is so traditional that it’s almost quaint: the Akron, Ohio duo — singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — recorded and self-produced their first few albums, slowing moving away from cover songs (their 2002 debut The Big Come Up features everything from Muddy Waters to the Beatles) to their own stuff. They recorded when and where they could: whether it was Carney’s basement or an abandoned factory. One of their albums, 2003’s Thickfreakness, was made in just a single day. They played small shows, then slightly bigger shows, then they started opening for bands like Beck and Pearl Jam. Companies like Victoria Secret and Sony licensed their music for commercials. And then in 2007, they met Danger Mouse.
The musician/producer (real name Brian Burton, one-half of Gnarls Barkley and the brains behind the fantastic Beatles/Jay-Z mashup The Grey Album) contacted them about contributing to an Ike Turner album that, because of Turner’s sudden death 2007, was never completed. “But we kept in touch,” says Auerbach, “and after a while, Brian said ‘I know you guys have never used an outside producer before, but basically if you ask me I’d say yes.” Burton produced their 2008 effort, Attack & Release, which featured the music originally intended for the Turner album. The result was cleaner, more professional (this album was clearly not recorded in an abandoned anything) and with just enough added instrumentation to push them temporarily into hyphenated genre land (psychedelic rock). Danger Mouse also produced the bluesy “Tighten Up” off last year’s album Brothers, the band’s first Billboard chart-topping song.
Brothers was an unexpected hit; the soul-inspired album went gold and earned them three Grammys. The Black Keys suddenly found themselves on The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live. (They made their second SNL appearance this past weekend.) The duo even left their longtime hometown of Akron for a more musically vibrant scene in Nashville. “Our success built so slowly that we’ve been prepared for it mentally,” says Auerbach. “If you’re a band and this happens after your very first record — that everyone wants to hang out with you and models want to be your girlfriend — I’m sure it would be pretty overwhelming. But we’ve been around for a while, we know better than to hang out with models.”
Instead, they’ve continued to hang out with Danger Mouse. And it’s paying off. Their new album, El Camino, is a punchy 38-minute long album filled almost entirely with pounding rock songs led by electric guitar and sung in Auerbach’s soulful growl — a perfect rock blend of scratch and croon. The album is packed so tightly with gems that it’s hard to pick out a favorite track. Maybe it’s “Lonely Boy,” a fast-paced garage rock anthem that sounds as if it’s pulled straight from the Animals or Kinks archives. It was released in October as the album’s first single and immediately shot to the top 5 on the rock and alternative charts.
The fuzzed-out riff on “Run Right Back” makes Auerbach’s electric guitar sound as if it’s literally crying. “Little Black Submarines” starts as an acoustic ballad and then switches into an energetic, electrified rock song halfway through (you know, that old “Stairway to Heaven” trick). “Dead and Gone,” and “Money Maker” make use of Cramps and Clash-style beats while “Gold on the Ceiling” is so trippy and rhythmic that if you ever find yourself driving down a lone desert highway in a vintage convertible — or if you’re Johnny Depp and you need some inspiration before you portray Hunter S. Thompson again — this is the song to play.
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El Camino will sound familiar to anyone schooled in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but the Black Keys haven’t copied anyone, they’ve just taken well-worn techniques and used them to create an album that fits in nicely along the rock ‘n’ roll timeline — somewhere between 1960s garage rock and the dawn of 1970s punk. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working; the group has just booked its biggest headlining gig to date, at Madison Square Garden in March.
It’s reassuring to know that a rock band can still build following the old fashioned way, through quality albums and years of regular touring, as opposed to just producing a music video purposefully designed to go viral. That’s not to say that the Keys aren’t above such things: the music video for “Lonely Boy,” which features a goofy dancing man, definitely did make the rounds on the Internet. But Auerbach says that its hilarity was a complete fluke. “We’d spent a lot of money on a totally different music video with a huge concept, but it was terrible,” he explained. The dancer had been hired as an extra, and so instead of releasing the real music video, the band just used raw footage of his moves. “Everyone told us not to use the dancing guy — even our record label was like, ‘This won’t work’ — but we stuck to our guns. And it worked out,” he says. “Actually, now that I think about it, that’s kind of how our entire career has gone.”