Mariachi, C&W, gospel, psych rock, blues and soul dazzlingly mashed together.
Mark Beaumont 2011
If you thought the new wave of blues rock first kicked up by The Datsuns in 2002 had buried its dog, bellowed its last and done gone died around the release of The White Stripes’ Icky Thump, Ohio’s The Black Keys are here to keep kicking up that down-home desert dust. Ten years and seven albums down the lonesome lost highway from debut The Big Come Up being (wrongly) lumped in with the dense posse of Jack White wannabes, they’ve torn away from the pack, embraced modernity in the shape of fifth album producer Danger Mouse and the 2009 hip hop project Blakroc, cracked the Billboard top five and sold two million albums. They’ve even become soundtrack mainstays. Twilight? Any movie set anywhere near a Midwest dustbowl? Or featuring hick zombies? Or a half-naked starlet chained to a radiator in Tennessee in dirty pants? Meet your new go-to geezers.
They’ve achieved this, all told, by metaphorically slamming every retro button with open palms and enthusiasm. Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney gunge America in the face with everything they know and find sonically comfortable, all at once. On El Camino, mariachi, C&W, gospel, psych rock, blues and soul all mash together into a warm and occasionally dazzling torrent; their appeal is less in fresh sounds as fresh composites of old ones, wrapped around classically dusty tales of errant womenfolk and addiction to love.
This seventh studio album throws up some fantastic examples: opener Lonely Boy takes base-level Duane Eddy rock’n’roll and layers on Monks synths, gospel blaze and mariachi twangs and ends up sounding invigorated and new, like The The burning alive in the Arcade Fire. Dead and Gone bristles with psych noir classicism, grisly guitar noise and glistening melodies, as if scooped from Tarantino’s scratchiest B movie nightmare. Gold on the Ceiling, all glam handclaps and Rhubarb & Custard synth splats, even does a soul-swathed Glitter stomp around the hoe-down. At times you wonder if this is an album or an all-you-can-eat Americana buffet.
For a record that rummages so excitedly through rock history, though, there’s a paucity of sucker-punch hooks here and, tellingly, it’s when The Black Keys nod to their own blues rock blueprint that they’re least engaging. Little Black Submarines is outdated blues balladry with a turgid Zep second act that seems dug up from a desert grave in 2004; Mind Eraser is a poor man’s disco remix of The Sopranos theme; and Money Maker could be, well, by The Datsuns. No, it’s in the Tornados twangles of Hell of a Season and Lonely Boy and the Supremes shimmy of Stop Stop or standout track Nova Baby that El Camino finds its identity and The Black Keys their new purpose – to reinvigorate rock’n’roll from the roots up. A heftier dash of melodic sparkle to their churn of genres and next time their meat might match their might.