Album Of The Week: The Black Keys El Camino
Album releases slow way down this time of year, and this week’s Album Of The Week was mostly a two-horse race between the Black Keys’ El Camino and the Roots’ undun. That ends up being a pretty interesting race because the two albums work in opposite, almost opposed ways. El Camino is practically a riff-delivery system. It has no sweeping ambition or centralizing concept; its only aim is to rock your face for 38 minutes. It gets in and gets out, leaving us feeling just slightly stomped-upon. The Roots album, meanwhile, is a rap-opera parable about black-youth self-destruction that runs in reverse like Memento and ends with a Sufjan-assisted avant-orchestral multiple-movement orchestral piece. Even though it’s close to the same length as El Camino, it’s way more of a messy sprawl, with ideas bouncing haphazardly in every direction, and its great moments and silly overreaches are practically one and the same. The two albums’ aims are completely different, and maybe if I had more time with the Roots’ effort, it would’ve won. But this time out, I have to give the nod to the zero-pretension rock monsters. They did what they came here to do.
Here’s something interesting: The Black Keys are an arena-rock band, in a completely nonmetaphorical sense. The band’s forthcoming U.S. tour is all arenas, so this isn’t an Arcade Fire situation where they sell out Madison Square Garden two nights running but then play big theaters and outdoor sheds everywhere else. Pretty soon, they’ll hit half the hockey arenas in our fair nation, and they’ll do it with the Arctic Monkeys opening for them. If you’d asked me a year ago, I probably would’ve guessed that the Monkeys were the bigger band, and I would’ve (apparently) been wrong. Very few straight-up rock bands ascend to arena status anymore, and the Black Keys have done it so slowly and organically that it’s impossible to begrudge them all those bullshit “Black Keys Are Saving Rock And Roll You Guys!” thinkpieces currently clogging up my RSS.
Here’s something even more interesting: The songs on El Camino are going to sound fucking great in those arenas. ?uestlove likes to say that undun is the best Roots album, but I think he’s wrong; his band, after all, made Illadeph Halflife and Things Fall Apart. But El Camino really is the best Black Keys album because it’s the purest. The band has always been about simplistic rawk aggression and nothing more, and El Camino just crushes on that end. There isn’t a single weak track, everything starts and ends with the same pummeling throb, and every riff gets a chance to bounce around in your head for a few minutes. Other than the acoustic early part of “Little Black Submarines” (the longest song here at 4:11) and maybe the slightly-more-melodic chorus of “Nova Baby,” there’s nothing here that remotely resembles a power ballad. The Keys’ most ferocious songs tend to be their most successful, and it seems like they’ve figured out that they should just hone in on that. The result has a hammerhead economy that almost reminds me of AC/DC. “Gold On The Ceiling” absolutely bulldozes with some sort of absurd pimp-strut confidence. “Money Maker” is basically a strip-club instant classic, and that’s probably intentional. The viral video for “Lonely Boy” works partly because of that one guy’s goofball charisma but also because “Lonely Boy” is the rare hard-rock song that could conceivably incite frenetic dancing.
Dan Auerbach will probably never live down the Jack White comparisons that have dogged him his entire career, and he’s just never going to be Jack White. At his best, White was some flaming mercurial combination of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant whose strangulated wail and head-spinning guitar theatrics could get as weird as they wanted and still blaze with the greats. My heart leaps every time I hear a Ravens crowd chanting the “Seven Nation Army” central riff, and I can’t imagine anyone will ever do that with, say, “Tighten Up.” But maybe Auerbach has realized that he can’t be Plant and Page at the same time but that we still need a Bob Seger, and that he can do that as well as anyone else. Or maybe he was Bob Seger the whole time, and I’m only just realizing it now. Either way, El Camino is a pretty goddam great Bob Seger album.
El Camino is out today on Nonesuch.