El Camino is a mixture of The Black Keys’ trademark blues-rock sound with the smooth production of 2008’s Attack and Release and the vintage soul of 2010’s Brothers, the album that elevated them to stadium status.
At 38.3 minutes long, the record is an upbeat reinterpretation of 70’s white-boy blues rock, presumably a result of returning-producer Danger Mouse’s pop single touch, stripping away the extended instrumental parts that are such an integral part of the band’s live show.
As a producer, Danger Mouse works as a collaborator, always integrating himself into the projects he works on to create records that would not have existed without his input, as was the case notably with Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, The Rapture and on Attack & Release. In this instance, where he is credited as a co-writer throughout the record, DM can be heard in every track, his clean pop sheen is the main sonic characteristic of this record, which both suits the material and sanitizes the ballsy edge that The Black Keys can have when they’re at their best.
Consequently, El Camino bounces along more than it does rock out, but is nevertheless an enjoyable addition to The Keys’ catalogue. “Run Right Back” is a definite highlight – classic blues riffs delivered with a distorted garage tone over a solid bass line, a strong insistent beat and Dan Auerbach’s falsetto sweetening the hook.
Similarly, the proceeding track, “Sister”, which has ‘next single’ written all over it, has an insistent, almost disco, beat matched with sparse riffing, chugging, some Danger Mouse synth parts, including an essential counter melody in the chorus, and an incredibly catchy vocal melody. It is difficult to say how much of “Sister” can be attributed to the producer’s input, but it is the “Crazy” of this set – an immediately enjoyable song with memorable hooks that can hold your attention whilst you shake your butt for its three minutes of duration.
Unfortunately not all of the disc can be described as memorable, although there are no huge missteps here, no big variations on the original theme, it just seems that now that The Black Keys have found a larger fanbase they are playing it a bit safe. Many of the guitar parts and melodies sound familiar, like they could have been taken from any number of old blues/rock/soul tunes, and the band tend to repeat the same ideas from track to track. Even the delicious bits of texture and interest that Danger Mouse injected into Attack & Release (see: “Strange Times” and “I Got Mine”) which he built around their sound, rather than integrating his into theirs, are missing, with the emphasis here on simple, catchy melodies above all else.
The one variation that occurs is “Little Black Submarines”, which begins with acoustic guitar and voice and switches to the full band sound at the halfway mark. This technique helps to break up the record’s pattern whilst maintaining its momentum, and the second half rocks all the more for the initial breezy restraint, although the same trick has been used to greater effect by Led Zeppelin, who the band are clearly channeling.
In conclusion, El Camino is a well made and fun record, a concentration of The Black Key’s powers, with the added help of those of their producer, resulting in a collection of inoffensive pop songs that lack the subtlety and looseness of much of their previous work.
Originally published on The AU Review on 23/12/2011. View original article.