Over 10 years and seven albums, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have turned their basement blues project into one of America’s mightiest bands. Weaned on Stax 45s and Wu-Tang loops, the Black Keys smeared the lines between blues, rock, R&B and soul, with Auerbach’s horny Howlin Wolf yowl bouncing off garage-y slashing and nasty body-rocking grooves. Like that other guitar and drums duo from the Rust Belt, the Akron, Ohio, guys brought raw, riffed-out power back to pop’s lexicon. On 2010’s Brothers, they found a perfect balance between juke-joint formalism and modern bangzoom. The result was a few Grammys and so many TV ad placements, The Colbert Report did a sketch about it.
El Camino is the Keys’ grandest pop gesture yet, augmenting dark-hearted fuzz blasts with sleekly sexy choruses and Seventies-glam flair. It’s an attempt at staying true to the spirit of that piece-of-shit minivan on the album cover – similar to their first touring vehicle – while reimagining it as a pimpmobile.
This is the Black Keys’ third meeting – following 2008’s Attack & Release and one track on Brothers – with Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton. Here, the band essentially becomes a trio, with Burton as co-producer/co-writer throughout. His brilliance, as the planet heard on Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, is blowing details of classic pop up to Jumbotron scale. Listen to the keyboard part that kicks in the door of El Camino‘s “Gold on the Ceiling”: a serrated organ growl backed up with a SWAT team of hand claps. It’s Sixties bubblegum garage pop writ large, with T. Rex swagger and a guitar freakout that perfectly mirrors the lyrics, a paranoid rant that makes you shiver while you shimmy.
The single “Lonely Boy” works the same way, launched on a gnarly, looped guitar riff whose last note slides down like a turntable that someone keeps stopping. Then a sugar-crusted keyboard comes in, along with what sounds like a boy-girl chorus, changing the swampy chug into a seductive singalong.
The Keys cited the Clash as an influence for El Camino, and that influence is evident in the increased zip of the grooves, and in the group hug between roots music and rock spectacle: See “Hell of a Season,” whose choppy guitar chords and relentless beat twists into a dubby, uptight reggae pulse. Of course, you can just as easily hear Led Zeppelin in “Little Black Submarines,” an acoustic blues that gets run over halfway through by electric riffs and brutish drums, Carney doing a hilariously great junkyard John Bonham.
There’s still a strange jukebox anonymity to the Keys’ approach; their vintage organ and guitar sounds often project larger personae than the band itself. But part of the reason Carney and Auerbach keep finding new ways to shake up that old-school blues-rock rumble is that they’re workaday dudes smart enough to get out of the way of their own songs. Like Clark Kent’s or Peter Parker’s, their 99 percentness only seems to enhance their powers.
Listen to “Lonely Boy”: