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.

Comments (15)
  1. Let’s not forget that Wives’ (ex-No Age) Roy Tapes is also being released today! I listened to Erect the Youth Problem this weekend while setting up the tree — put me in the holiday spirit.

  2. Completely agree with everything up there. The best way to describe El Camino is to just say it’s fucking awesome. No more, no less.

  3. NEW DRINKING GAME: Listen to El Camino. Try not to play the air guitar. Every time you do, you drink. You will have alcohol poisoning by the end of Gold on the Ceiling.

  4. Pitting these two albums against each other simply because they were released on the same day does them both a disservice. They’re both incredible, tom, you doofus.

  5. I’m not even going to bother reading this article; I’m just going to listen to El Camino (again).

  6. This is what nickelback thinks they sound like.

  7. In the context of this article what is the definition of pure, and with that in mind how is this the, “purest,” Black Keys album?

    • I think its pure in the sense that it is made organically out of the band’s love for making music. And its release is simultaneously loved by fans and greeted with even more mainstream success. Essentially what every album should be.
      So I guess its more context that makes it pure.

  8. I am pretty sure that the Path of Totality by dubstep-forefathers, Korn, came out today. All kidding aside (I’m not joking, just joking, I’m joking, just joking, not joking) El Camino is very fun and a vast improvement in album length. Some of it sounds a bit derivative (Does anyone else hear “Electioneering” when they “jam out” to “Run Right Back”) to me and I don’t know if it will stand the test of time like Brothers. For the time being, it is definitely a badass record.

  9. The following essay is about the Roots’ new CD and has nothing to do with arguing whether or not it is a better album than the Black Keys record. Stop reading now if you wish. You have been warned.

    Based on one’s definition of what makes an album good (whether it be a great collection of songs, unifying themes throughout, memorable/quotable, all of the above, or an awesome concept), I would say that it is highly arguable whether or not undun is the Roots best album. I believe it to be their best album because of the consistency from track-to-track whether it be the music, production, featured spots, or black thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve heard more on point guest features in a hip-hop album (not just in terms of quality but also keeping in check with what the song is trying to accomplish). I think that the focus of the record is great and I would call it more of a thematic record than a concept record. Lyrically, it doesn’t seem to get bogged down in a narrative and to me feels akin to something like I’m Not There.

    I don’t think the album is that pretentious and I am curious as to how it would have been perceived without the “concept” (probably more pretentious). These days (that’s your cue Nico) it seems that artists, especially those that operate within the mainstream, have to reveal more about their product in order for people to “get it.” I realize that understanding something isn’t mutually exclusive with liking it and maybe (backtracking to my LDR comment earlier) words are better left unsaid.

    • On second thought… I would still love to see an above the influence article on Lana Del Rey. I know that you guys have the power, so please make this happen.

  10. Based on this review, I’ll have to check out the Roots’ album. I don’t usually listen to hip-hop – just not a genre I know much about or have time for given all my other musical interests – but this review makes it sound quite intriguing. As for the Black Keys, the reviewer’s “riff-delivery system” is right on. This album does nothing more than rock your socks off for 38 minutes – and that’s a good thing! http://www.kammentary.com/2011/12/music-review-el-camino-by-black-keys.html

  11. He has indeed been Seger the whole time. I don’t think at any point The Black Keys ever wanted to be The White Stripes.

  12. How anyone can think the new Black Keys album is anything other than watered down mom-rock is beyond me. Its vanilla mediocrity is worse than any pile of shit they could have put out. They found a polite, clean sound, and they’re selling it to all the “born in the wrong decade” kids who think Led Zeppelin were the greatest songwriters of all time. This is not punk rock. This is stagnating. Like toilet water. The Black Keys peaked with Attack & Release and should have called it quits then.

    Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Carney have been hailed as the sole survivors of the garage/blues-rock explosion of the early ’00s, but I’m not so sure that’s something to be proud of. I’m sure you’ll be able to find all their future releases shuffled somewhere between your mother’s Sheryl Crow’s Greatest Hits CDs. Move along people, there’s nothing to see here.

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