Boy oh boy, I sure love a quick announcement to release turnaround. Back on October 9th The Black Keys announced the name of their new album, “El Camino”, and revealed that it would be with us in less than two months. Two months! So much anticipation, so little time.
But the public awareness that the album was coming and equally public anticipation of it made something very clear to me, something that I hadn’t really noticed: somewhere down the line, The Black Keys became a big deal. They used to sit quietly behind The White Stripes in most people’s music libraries – well, sit quite rowdily behind them I guess, but you get the picture. Now all of a sudden The Black Keys are the blues act of the moment: their videos are going viral, Shaun White has appeared in one, and you’ve got around a 1 in 3 shot of hearing The Black Keys if you flip onto NBC, whether it’s a song playing in the background on CSI, lead single “Lonely Boy” getting featured on Ellen for it’s one man dance video, or even the band appearing on SNL.
Why does any of that matter? Well, because some of the band’s regular features don’t look so good in this new light. The Black Keys have never wasted time putting music out – this is their seventh release in nine years – and their sound has only ever changed in increments. Normally that’s been fine, but when a record is following a relative hit like “Brothers” that was released only a little over 18 months ago and its incremental change is a deliberate step in the direction of more poppy hooks and its marketing is quite so ubiquitous… well, it’s easy to cry cash-in.
It’s tough to moan for too long, though, once you actually hear “El Camino”. The psychedelic subtleties that permeated a few of the Keys’ middle albums have been completely removed, not that there were many left on “Brothers” anyway, which will be a downer for some. Left behind are 11 great hooks, 11 great choruses, and a definite stab at superstardom.
“Lonely Boy”, with its sloppy-yet-sharp riff and uber-chantable chorus, establishes the formula and is comfortably the best of the lot, so much so that putting it right at the front of the album might have been a bit of an error: you can’t help but feel like “El Camino” goes downhill from there. Still, there are other peaks, like “Gold On The Ceiling” and its dirty, dirty riff, and “Little Black Submarine”, the only time that “El Camino” lets up the pace. It starts as a tender acoustic number in the vein of many a Jack White pace changer – seriously, could they make the comparison any easier? – before exploding into another crashing rock ‘n’ roller. They just can’t help themselves.
There’s really not a whole lot else to say about “El Camino”. Devoted fans might be a little disappointed that The Black Keys seem to have pandered to newcomers on this eerily well crafted iteration of their brand of fuzzy blues, but it’s a mighty sensible career move. It’ll be interesting to see where The Black Keys go from here. The limelight is on them, and after an album that ends with the words “dont’ let it be over”, it doesn’t seem like they want to leave it any time soon.