On 2002’s “The Big Come Up,” the Black Keys were all grime. Recorded in the most lo-fi of ways — in drummer Pat Carney’s basement using an old 8-track — the duo’s debut was as close to the blues as two young white boys from Northeast Ohio were going to get. And it was impressively close.
Nine years, six albums and one hell of a slow burn later, the Black Keys aren’t exactly the same straightforward duo. Lyrically, they’re the same guys they’ve always been — times get tough with women-folk, and their rate of staying versus going hovers around 50 percent. Musically, there have been multiple attempts to step outside of their signature sound; there have also been several attempts to find a place for producer Danger Mouse in what they do.
On past Black Keys albums, the duo sounded effortlessly vintage-cool, a time capsule for what the blues-steeped genre of rock’n’roll used to be. On new album “El Camino,” out today (Dec. 6), the band tries — perhaps a little too hard — to sound “retro,” from throwback surf-rock riffs to kitschy organ accents and more handclapping than Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” They’re still channeling classic rock, but now it’s more T. Rex than Cream.
This isn’t the first time the band has gone in such a direction, with last year’s “Tighten Up,” which Carney told Billboard was the band’s attempt at writing a radio hit, serving as a teaser. It’s an impossible standard to expect a band not to evolve musically over the course of 10 years, and to not go in the way of what has made them more popular. With that said, the 11 tracks on “El Camino” are as catchy — but perhaps more importantly, TV/film-synch ready — as anything climbing up the Rock Songs or Alternative Songs charts, and are probably more carefully crafted to sound that way. The Black Keys don’t mess around.
So which songs on the Black Keys’ “El Camino” are worth checking out? Read our track-by-track review of the album, and sound off in the comments section.
1. “Lonely Boy”
When it comes to matters of the heart, the Black Keys aren’t always the nice guys. From 2008’s “Psychotic Girl” to last year’s “Next Girl” and now “Lonely Boy,” the duo seems perennially down for a bit of ex-girlfriend bad-mouthing. Nevermind its slinging of arrogance and dredging up of daddy issues — it sure does have a groovy beat that’s landed it on the Hot 100 already.
2. “Dead and Gone”
“Dead and Gone” goes with a three-tiered plan of attack: a simple yet effective drum beat, then a riff that recalls the Police, and finally, plenty of “whoa-ohs” and “na-nas” from frontman Dan Auerbach and his army of taunting back-up singers. With its expert “Tighten Up”-esque ability to lodge itself in one’s head, the poppy song would make for a smart single.
3. “Gold on the Ceiling”
After the band played “Gold on the Ceiling” on “SNL” this past weekend, we’re predicting it’s the second single off “El Camino.” Not a bad choice: the fuzzy, “Born to Be Wild”-esque track is sure to be used in trailers for summer 2012 blockbusters, from Megan Fox flicks to buddy comedies. That’s the sort of range that, after last year’s Black Keys licensing extravaganza, matters for them now.
4. “Little Black Submarines”
At first “Little Black Submarines” finds Auerbach giving his best Dylan imitation, but the light finger-picking can’t last. By the end of it, the song sounds like Jack White had a hand in it. Is this off the next Raconteurs album?
5. “Money Maker”
The driving chorus convinces me this could — and perhaps will — be the theme to a TNT drama that centers around a ball-busting, sharp-tongued female executive who means business in the boardroom AND the bedroom. (It’s only because the music supervisor who arranged the synch didn’t realize what this song is about (prostitution), or frankly didn’t give a damn.)
6. “Run Right Back”
With an irresistable slide guitar and a syncopated beat, “Run Right Back” may be the album’s finest track, or at least enough to make up for the distinct lack of blues influence on “El Camino.” If the band was going for a pure rock record, every track on the album would sound like this gem.
Hand-claps and synthesizers perk up a moody track that puts the band in a new position: lamenting not for themselves, but for a loved one. For a band that discusses walking out as much as being walked on in relationships, the Black Keys don’t hold back on male scorn and female sympathy. How very Lifetime of them.
8. “Hell of a Season”
The hard-hitting drum beat and guitar-noodlin’ solo make up for the repetitive nature of this ultimatum-giving track about, yet again, how complicated girls are.
9. “Stop Stop”
Did producer Danger Mouse call up his old buddy Cee Lo and nab this? Sounds like an outtake from “The Lady Killer,” or at the very least, Gnarls Barkley.
10. “Nova Baby”
Another album highlight, in which the Black Keys fully commit to retro-psych experimentation and achieve it with total success — and still have room to spit some universal truths (“All your enemies smile when you fall / Take it ’cause you don’t know what you want”).
11. “Mind Eraser”
Black (Keys) and blues are reunited once more, in the form of a midtemp, piano-driven track. Now, this feels more like “Brothers.”