We’ve had more than a month of build-up to the new Black Keys release with the video of “Lonely Boy” popping up on YouTube in October, and plenty of industry buzz, and then early pronouncements by critics from coast to coast of “best album of the year” (2011 AND 2012!) and The Black Keys’ “best yet,” so expectations have been pretty high. After all, “Brothers” picked up a few Grammys in 2010 and was a virtual tie for my fave with Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
The Keys have been darlings of the music biz literati for the last decade and built their following the old-fashioned way (touring, touring, touring and recording, recording, recording) and the new-fashioned way (via YouTube, Facebook and picking fights with Lady Gaga’s “little monsters” on Twitter. Hilarious exchanges between Pat Carney and some of those monsters and a Tweet or two by yours truly).
So it no longer surprises to hear The Black Keys on the radidio and on TV in commercials and show soundtracks. But that viral video of “Lonely Boy” (3.6 million views since Oct. 25!) has raised the bar for the duo from Firestone High School (my son Matt is a sophomore there now – no expectations for rock stardom, but, hey, you never know, right?).
While unmistakably Black Keys, “Lonely Boy” is definitely part of a gradual departure from the (mostly) straight-ahead electric blues of the early days of “The Big Come Up” and “Thickfreakness” to bringing in Danger Mouse to help produce “Attack and Release” and its signature track “Strange Times” to the breakthrough “Brothers” (viral hit “Tighten Up”) and now “El Camino.”
And it’s great to hear “Lonely Boy” in higher fidelity than what my laptop’s meager speakers had to offer.
Dan Aurbach and Pat Carney have moved to Nashville, which seems to be a good move on several levels. It’s a a music “industry” town, which lately has become much more than just a country mecca, but it’s not L.A., so far removed from Akron that the boys can’t easily come back and arrange a photo shoot with the old hometown as the background for the quirky artwork directed and shot by Michael Carney (yes, brothers) and maintaining that Akron connection on many levels.
In a Facebook chat with Jim Carney, Pat and Michael’s dad (and a former colleague of mine at the Akron Beacon Journal), Jim said he believed the minivans photographed in the CD cover art and booklet inside represented their upbringing riding around Akron and its ‘burbs in minivans of a certain vintage. And some kind of rustbelt humor, I suspect.
True story: As I leafed through the booklet with photos in very subdued color (they almost look black-and-white) of rusting minivans with wood panels and duct-taped windows, I noticed that the houses and streets had a distinctly old Akron look. No surprise, right? Then I saw the photo of a dark blue minivan (early-mid-’90s Chrysler “grand” variety) parked in front of a sign that said “Remedial Traffic School.” Yup, on East Tallmadge Avenue. And if you look through the minivan’s front window, you can make out Ohio Route 8 signage. I have deep inside information that the Remedial Traffic School takes pizza delivery almost every weekend from Papa John’s. Pretty decent tippers, too, I’m told. I have my sources.
So, “El Camino,” a title named for a hybrid car/pickup from a few decades back, is an album featuring pictures of minivans of the ’80s and ’90s, itself a hybrid of pop music and a decreasingly apparent influence of blues (and, Auerbach reveals in an NYT article, that Carney hates the blues!! WTF!).
Which brings me to “Little Black Submarines,” the fourth of 11 tracks on “El Camino” in this rambling mess of a review. It (the song, not this rambling mess of a review) starts out as an acoustic dirge, almost, then shifts abruptly from mourning to anger.
Over the years the Black Keys have been compared to the White Stripes, another guitar-and-drums duo (one) out of a Midwestern town (two) that came up in the early 2000s (three) with some roots in the blues (four) but which rarely actually sounded much alike. The White Stripes’ Jack White tends to occupy the higher ends of his guitar’s range when he goes on a shredding tear, which is often, whereas Auerbach tends to dwell in the lower end (which served them well when The Black Keys performed as a pure duo — in early live shows at, say, the Lime Spider in Akron, you scarcely noticed the absence of a bass player because Auerbach filled it it well). This tune sounds just a little like the White Stripes when it shifts from acoustic to electric, but only until Auerbach starts singing, at least two octaves lower than Jack White. Plus, the White Stripes are kaput, which is neither here nor there.
The Black Keys have always been more muscular, and often a bit sinister, in their sound; this is not to imply that The Black Keys are somehow better than the White Stripes (I’ll save that argument for another time), just to state that they’re bloody different. Like Scotland and Ireland. How do you take your haggis? I like the White Stripes, I like the Raconteurs, another Jack White project. It’s just that, well, stop trying to compare them. OK?
Once again, I digress.
In “Money Maker,” Auerbach makes the best use of the talk box since Peter Frampton in “Do You Feel Like We Do.” The riff toward the end has a kind of Southern Gothic vibe, as if something Faulknerian is about to occur. Hide the women and children! Oh, wait, they’re in on it. Southern blues have always had a kind of underlying sense of gloom and doom, and maybe that’s part of what fuels The Black Keys song.
“Sister” seems like a self-conscious effort to provide a companion for “Unknown Brother” from “Brothers.” Maybe it’ll grow on me. Maybe not. And, as you’ll see in track-by-track notes below, it does indeed grow on me.
And now this thought.
The Black Keys have been together longer than the Beatles were together. The Black Keys have been pretty darn prolific with seven albums as The Black Keys plus side projects such as the excellent Blakroc and other ventures by Auerbach and Carney, but the industry has changed. Pop culture has changed. In the ’60s, The Beatles transformed pop music, along with a few other giants, contemporaries such as The Who, the Rolling Stones, Led Zepp, the Kinks (and let’s admit the Brits were dominant) and the Beach Boys. OK, let’s mention the Doors, I guess.
Those kind of Revolutions aren’t likely to happen now, at least not in pop music as fragmented as it is now. Few radio stations will put The Black Keys on the same playlist with Katie Perry and Lady Gaga or Black Sabbath or Kid Cudi or Hootie and The Blowfish or (God forbid) Britney Spears or Shania Twain. Maybe Adele, until we’re all sick to death of her.
So where do we end up with this?
The Black Keys, El Camino.
Great album? Yes. Best of the year? Matter of taste, but it’s certainly among the best. Best by The Black Keys? I dunno, I’m still a tad partial to “Brothers,” but this is only on the third-and-a-half listen of “El Camino.” “Lonely Boy” is an instant classic, so that gives “El Camino” some momentum.
I have to believe that the best is yet to come from The Black Keys. This duo’s growth from the early (and quite impressive) stuff to now has been nothing short of phenomenal. U2’s best came at about the 10-to-15-year mark (“Joshua Tree,” “Achtung Baby.”) R.E.M.’s best, too (“Automatic for the People,” “Out of Time”).
I was a tad worried that The Black Keys would get stuck with the “blues phenom” tag and forever be marginalized, which mercifully has not happened. The 11 tracks on “El Camino” add up to a strong album, but I can’t say they’re all gold standard. That’s incredibly hard to do. How many albums, whether vinyl, CD or other, are absolute gold from start to finish? Two, three, maybe four? How ahout Springsteen’s “Born to Run”? Pink Floyd’s “The Wall?” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”? Even titans like the Beatles, U2 and R.E.M have had some dogs.
I believe the Keys can achieve a transcendent kind of greatness. This one comes close.
One more thing: Heed the sticker note: PLAY LOUD.
Track by track
1. Lonely Boy
Oh-oh-oh, I’m just a lonely boy. Love the dancing dude in the video. This is gold.
2. Dead and Gone
Starts out with a drum beat and bass line reminiscent of The Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement” but shoots off into a chorus now familiar to Black Keys listeners. This one doesn’t do a whole lot for me.
3. Gold on the Ceiling.
Yup, got those fuzzy keyboards, Auerbach vocals kind of in the back of the track. Catchy tunage. The Black Keys have mastered the catchy riff, verse and refrain.
4. Little Black Submarine.
‘Oh, can it be, the voices calling me, they get lost in and out of time. Told my girl I’d be back, operator, please, this is wrecking my mind. Everybody knows that a broken heart is blind.” Then bad things happen. This is a kickin’ tune.
5. Money Maker
“Oh, she wants milk and honey, she wants filthy money.” Subject to interpretation: Well-heeled suburban housewife or something else altogether? And there’s that filthy talk-box guitar solo. Full of malice and menace. It’s something The Black Keys do better than almost anybody.
6. Run Right Back
“That pretty head of hers. She’s the worst thing I’ve been addicted to. I won’t jump the track, I’ll run right back to her.” … Yup, been there, even when I know she’s not good for me. You’d think we’d know better by now. We don’t learn, do we? Auerbach’s guitar keeps this song interesting.
Remember when R.E.M. was branded as the “jangly” guitar band of the early ’80s? Under 30? Nevermind. This might be the Black Keys’ bluesy guitar-riffy-with-organ-chord thang that they fall back on when nothing else presents itself. Not that it’s a bad thing, just that, well, it’s not setting the house on fire. * Now on the fourth or fifth listen, I’m picking up a groove on this tune that I didn’t early on. Some songs grab you at the very beginning, while others take a little time to grow on you. This is from the latter group. Patience, children. Patience.
8. Hell of a Season.
See 7. Sister. In this hell of a season, give me one more reason to be with you.
9. Stop Stop.
“You got an evil streak. They told me to stay away, but I was much too weak. This love was so strong it shoulda been against the law. You gotta stop stop what you see me for.”
10. Nova Baby.
“You take it cuz you don’t know what you want. You waste it cuz you don’t don’t know what you want.” Nifty guitar solo, very tuneful.
11. Mind Eraser.
Starts out with one of those classic Black Keys menacing guitar riffs. And Auerbach announces, “I am the mind eraser, anything goes.” Woe, don’t let me me over, let me over ohhhh.
This is the kind of album that I’ll probably revisit, again and agina, then take a look at this “review” and wonder, what the hell was I thinking when I thought it was less than perfect. Which is to say it may yet prove to be perfect, or damned near so.