The Black Keys
First off, I would like to apologize for the delay. This review was supposed to surface yesterday, but do to a hectic work schedule recently, it was not possible. When I finally began writing the review, I was so eager to talk about The Black Keys, that I wrote 700 words without even breaking into a single point about the new album. So I decided to split it up and write a Thoughts @ Work piece as well, that will be posted later today.
The Black Keys have taken some huge turns and leaps since their debut album in 2002, and it has paid off a little more every time. The Akron, Ohio two piece blues/rock/soul duo have been accused of many things, and one I hear most frequently is, “These guys just rip off old blues music.”. My response is generally somewhere along the lines of, “Hmm, ok … are they not a blues band? Have you ever listened to the genre? Then you are aware that it is basically based around a 12-bar blues progression and lyrics about being depressed or “having the blues, right?” They don’t hide their love for the genre, they exemplify it. Their debut album in 2002 included covers from R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Mckinley Morganfield, and The Beatles. A few years later, they released an EP that was simply 7 tracks of Junior Kimbrough music. They don’t put studio recordings of covers on their albums anymore, but their second most recent effort, Brothers, featured cover art, that was a direct shout out to beloved blues pioneer, Howlin’ Wolf. They not only embrace their roots, but they have extensive knowledge and understanding of them as well.
The problem was, they created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for themselves by recording four albums straight that were simply the guitarist Dan, and the drummer Pat. The albums were simple, aggressive, bluesy, and a load of fun to listen to. People were happy with The Black Keys. They went back to the basics of electric-grunge blues. They had respect for their influences, and they were the loudest band I had ever heard live in my life. I saw them twice at a small bar/venue in Indianapolis called The Vogue, before their largest infusion with pop music on Attack and Release, and it was the perfect bar show. It was the loudest, simplest, and most passionate live act I’d ever seen at that point. I was hooked.
Then came a turning point. They were getting bigger. They had more money to play with while creating their albums. They decided to pick up DJ Danger Mouse to help produce what would be their first multi-instrumental album, featuring bass, keyboards, banjos, flutes, etc. It was a success. Some fans wrote them off for “selling out”, jumping ship, or not sticking to their roots. But I stand by the fact that they made the right choice. They had to mix it up if they were going to stay in the mix themselves. People would have gotten sick of the same ten track albums that all sounded similar. Plus, The Keys wanted to branch out and show they could do more and celebrate more of their musical influences in other ways. So with the help of Danger Mouse, they infused their bluesy vibes with pop music, and haven’t looked back since.
The album launches off with its first single, “Lonely Boy”. If any of you are avid readers of LxL, you have probably already heard this song, and watched the video. Both are great. “Lonely Boy” begins with a very 70‘s-esque guitar tone, that is swimming in reverb and accompanied by a light, yet haunting organ arrangement that sounds like it could have been in a Tarantino soundtrack at some point. Bluesy lyrics, catchy hooks, and 70’s guitar tones sum up the vibe of this track, and set the tone for the rest of the album.
^In case you missed it the first time we posted it … and even if you didn’t watch it again, it’s hilarious.
With El Camino, they strayed a bit from the more “Soul meets T. Rex” vibe they had on Brothers. Instead they essentially made a power-pop punk album that is completely blues infused. Every song on the album lands between the 3 and 4 minute mark, aside from “Little Black Submarines” which reaches 4:11. It’s the only song that doesn’t quite fit on the album either. It’s the first song in the band’s history that is a two-parter. It starts slow and sweet, then gets loud and mean when it busts into some power chords, and a verse. It then gets lost in a spacey jam that wraps up fairly quickly. As far as spacey jams are concerned, I’d say it’s the shortest I’ve ever heard. I feel like this track is basically The Black Keys version of “Stairway to Heaven”, and I feel like they did exactly what they should have done with it. They didn’t take it over the top or make a big fuss with it. They did it in a very Black Keys sort of way, quick and dirty. I love the song, but it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album.
El Camino has this ghostly/reminiscent sound you can’t quite put your finger on. It is back to their roots in the sense that it is more aggressive and quick than the last two, but it’s very different in the sense that its influences branch out from all over the place, rather than just old blues artists. You hear bits of The Clash, some Iggy Pop, and T. Rex still lingering around somewhere. Zeppelin makes a brief appearance, they definitely Cramps it up a bit, and maybe even throw some Zombies layers into the mix. They did slightly dip into 70’s soul again with tracks like “Stop Stop”, “Sister”, and “Gold on the Ceiling”, but not quite like the soul tracks from Brothers.
Almost every song on El Camino is so catchy that you will have this album on your mind for days after the first listen, which leads me to believe this album will be even more popular than Brothers. Which in turn, will more than likely result in a larger fan base, which in turn will naturally drive out the older fan base for the classic “selling out” reason (If you are interested, you can catch my take on that issue later today). But I’m sticking around and embracing these Keys and El Camino with very loving arms. Here’s to modern blues, The Black Keys, and vintage 1970’s sounds/cars.
Can’t Miss: “Lonely Boy”, “Dead and Gone”, “Stop Stop”, “Money Maker”
Can’t Hit: Although I can’t wait to see it live, “Little Black Submarines”. I get why they did it, and I do like it, but it throws off the album.