Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: The Black Keys, 'El Camino'

From the slice-'em-and-dice-'em guitar riff triggered by the album-opening Lonely Boy, El Camino again establishes The Black Keys as the prototype 21st-century party band.

Such a tag might suggest that a kind of modern pop sheen has overtaken the music of the Nashville-by-way-of-Akron, Ohio, troupe fronted by guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. Not at all.

El Camino is something of a garage sale in which assorted riffs, grooves and retro-lined melodies are placed on view, even though the chunky, distorted and instantly infectious music that The Black Keys fashion from these spare parts becomes unmistakably their own.

Take all of Lonely Boy, for instance. That fabulous opening riff is just a heartbeat away from the grand guitar line that T. Rex used to ignite 20th Century Boy nearly 40 years ago.

Take Little Black Submarine, which — after being submerged for two minutes in stark, acoustic reflection that recalls 1970-era Traffic — surfaces with a guitar hook that sounds as if it was passed from Neil Young to Tom Petty before winding up in Auerbach's lap.

Gold on the Ceiling opens with a bouncy guitar reverie before settling into a boogie groove that would have well served the Chess-era records of Muddy Waters.

Then there's the overall sound of El Camino. With Danger Mouse again producing alongside Auerbach and Carney, the album retreats ever so slightly from the brighter, fuller pop passages that made last year's Brothers a breakout record for The Black Keys. But there is still enough of the earlier album's pop accents — specifically the choral-like backing vocals that provide harmony and very unlikely counterpoint to Auerbach's unfussy singing on Dead and Gone and Sister — to fuel the new record's retroactive fun. Those songs closely rival Lonely Boy as the El Camino works that will keep kicking around in your brain after just a listen or two.

And let us not forget Carney, whose thunderous backbeat keeps crashing the party again and again on El Camino, yet it never sounds tired or obvious. When the party veers into the '80s, as it does on Nova Baby, Carney offers a post-New Wave stomp that settles into a muted, Clash-like beat.

Those still lamenting the primal boogie grind of The Black Keys' early Fat Possum records will find little to key into on El Camino other than the aforementioned Chess reflections during the intro to Gold on the Ceiling. It's best to view those initial indie efforts, fine as they were, as the product of an entirely different band. For The Black Keys, the party has moved on.

Slide into the passenger seat of El Camino, in fact, and you will quickly sense how far the band as traveled and how sweet the ride remains.