Have the Black Keys become too acceptable? There’s a letdown when this situation occurs, the predictability of the unlikely underdog whose uniqueness isn’t weird enough to ward off the inevitable –– the “big time”–– and its empty predictability.
The Kings of Leon “suffered” this fate; once sounding like they recorded from the bottom of a whiskey bottle (charmingly so) to a neutered half life as top-40 darlings and a focus for Starbucks types who feel the need for slumming.
But fear not, Akron, Ohio’s salt-of-the earth favourite sons aren’t selling out, they’re merely expanding and tweaking their dirty sound. This isn’t hard to do –– the band’s only a duo (Dan Auerbach, guitar/vocals and Patrick Carney, drums/production).
Album #7, El Camino, is slightly less rooted in sludgy blues rock than some previous releases and moves into ‘60s/‘70s rock and soul/pop.
The Keys co-wrote the songs with producer/musician Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), who worked on the band’s earlier Attack and Release album.
Danger Mouse supplies keyboards and bass where needed on El Camino, adding gritty spaghetti-western resonance to hooks (Dead and Gone).
Lonely Boy keeps the Keys’ garage rock heart beating steady on, with a detectable melodic strength that spells “single.”
The garage expansion works its rough beauty on every track on the record due to Auerbach’s attention to choruses. Spontaneity and looseness is kept intact and vocals are jammed out, resulting more in melody than lyrical content.Danger Mouse’s raw and schmaltzy bass and keyboard work matches the crackle of the guitars in all the right places.
Having pulverizing guitar/drum unison riffs that sound like an exploding outhouse is the key ingredient, of course. But it’s not all about kicking the door in. Sister has a mid-‘60s sheen around its centre that places the garage in and around Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York City, way back when…
The album has evocative material throughout, trading on the sooty interplay of driving beat rock and elemental hooks.
Honourable mention should go to Little Black Submarines, a dark acoustic off-ramp that explodes in Who-like fury half way through, just because it can.
The Black Keys and Danger Mouse understand each other.
–– Dean Gordon-Smith is the guitarist in Vernon touring band Redfish, and writes a music review column that appears every Friday in The Morning Star.