With El Camino, The Black Keys continue their trajectory skyward, wrangling in the mainstream and bending it to their design. It’s the Akron, Ohio-duo’s second album in as many years, a sequel of sorts to 2010’s breakthrough Brothers.
The sprawling nature found on Brothers is tempered by the short-and-sweet immediacy of El Camino, its 11 songs clocking in at 38 minutes. Frontman Dan Auerbach’s guitar playing has never been more melodious, while Patrick Carney’s signature ramshackle drumming is at its hardest hitting and most urgent. As has been their trend with each successive release, they continue forsaking lo-fi blues jams for more concise songwriting and crisper recording. It’s not unfair to compare their evolving sound to the career paths of the bluesmen they emulate, emerging from the murky delta to fashion a more refined and instrumentally-diverse template.
Lyrically, Auerbach sticks to his bread-and-butter, alternately cocksure and bemoaning how his woman done him wrong, while the music he and Carney conjure amps up the balls-out swagger. The tongue-in-cheek approach to relationship dynamics is most explicit on “Run Right Back,” in which Auerbach sings with deprecating pride, “She’s the worst thing/I’ve been addicted to.”
“Lonely Boy” opens the album with an ascending guitar riff that abruptly sputters off. A jangly dance rhythm and wall of keyboards soon join in, all building to the first of many sing-along choruses. A choir of female harmony vocals supports the refrain, and the prevalence of such an effect is the most striking alteration to the band’s sound. The Keys’ use of female vocalists is nothing new, but the abundance with which they feature on El Camino — nearly every track — is notable, and surely an embellishment borne of producer Danger Mouse.
As much collaborator as producer, Danger Mouse is credited with playing keyboards and co-writing each song, effectively becoming a third-member of the band (Black Mouse? Danger Keys?). Like the female vocals, Danger Mouse’s ubiquitous keyboards alter the Keys’ sound while still keeping it in a blues vein. Production-wise, there is a hearkening back to a 1970s vibe, most significantly on “Dead and Gone” and “Nova Baby.”
“Little Black Submarines” is the centerpiece. The first half is limited to sparse acoustic guitar plucking, tambourine thumping and eerie, distant-sounding organ textures, reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. It is the Keys’ most delicate and heartfelt composition since 2004’s “The Lengths,” with Auerbach perpetuating the blues trope of a desperate man appealing to a telephone operator. The tenderness falls by the wayside about two minutes in amid bombastic drum bursts and frayed guitar lines.
Closer “Mind Eraser” wraps-up the album with Auerbach repeatedly crooning “Don’t let it be over,” an appropriate sentiment most listeners will find themselves echoing.
Those looking to see the Keys perform live in Chicago (with support from the Arctic Monkeys) can still buy tickets for their March 19 performance at the United Center.