The word circulating about The Black Keys' new album is that it’s a change up for the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Yes and no is my response to that suggestion. Yes the pair has moved from their Akron home and studio to a new set up in Nashville. Yes, they’ve teamed up with producer Brian Burton, aka, Danger Mouse and tweaked their sound a bit, adding backing chorus, a few keyboards, and a touch of glam rock, rockabilly, and even a bit of surf guitar to their repertoire. And, yes, they’ve sped up the tempo in contrast to their last album Brothers. Still the band sticks to their building blocks – grinding garage rock with an emphasis on guitar and drums. The duo plays all instruments with additional keyboard help from Burton.
El Camino opens with the single “Lonely Boy.” Auerbach’s grunge guitar emerges out of dirty feedback shadowed by Carney’s propulsive percussion. Auerbach breaks into reverb-dipped vocals, supported by a chorus ripped straight out of Concrete Blonde’s playbook. The sound is both reminiscent of The Black Keys’ past work, but there is a new twist that adds depth. The guys don’t let up on the next track: “Dead and Gone” features chorus and glockenspiel, and a bass driven reggae rhythm. Auerbach breaks out into a fuzz guitar solo mid-way through. Once you hit track 3 “Gold on the Ceiling,” an homage to 1970s glam rock, you’ve got the message - Auerbach and Carney are in high voltage form. “Little Black Submarine” begins as an acoustic ballad with Auerbach, singing sans reverb, accompanied by his acoustic guitar until light percussion and organ sneak in. Suddenly growling electric guitar and pounding drums turn the song into a rock anthem.
El Camino leaps around like that, with influences of early rock and soul sliding in and out of the mix. Here and there you’ll catch progressions that bring to mind The Doors, T Rex, and The Animals. What you hear less of is the heavy blues influence of Brothers and Auerbach’s solo album Keep It Hid. The change could reflect the influence of Brian Burton who, besides producing, co-writes the songs. Auerbach and Carney experienced commercial success on their last release but found the songs difficult to reproduce on tour due to their mellower tempo. El Camino will keep the duo rocking on the road and should continue to expand The Black Keys fan base.
As an addendum, the car featured on the album cover is not an El Camino. It is a Chrysler Town & Country van, a vehicle the band has used for touring. El Camino, according to the guys, was simply a better title.