The Black Keys have walked a long path to get to this point in their careers. The two friends from Akron, Ohio, have experienced it all in their ten years in a band together, from driving 1000 miles to play in front of a dozen people in a dingy club to winning Grammy Awards in front of a TV audience of millions. El Camino, their seventh album, contains all the characteristics of their musical output up until now, but where previous album Brothers had an emphasis on soul, El Camino has a reverence for straight up rock and roll and garage punk, in all its grease-stained glory.
While early Black Keys material was stubbornly a guitar & drums combination only, lately they've welcomed bass to the fold with open arms and it has introduced a whole new dimension to their music. It's particularly prominent in songs like 'Run Right Back' and 'Dead and Gone', the latter of which even introduces a xylophone to the fold, another first for them.
'Little Black Submarine' starts off as a skeleton of a song, with Dan Auerbach gently picking on an acoustic guitar before Patrick Carney's cavernous drums explode and put some significant flesh on the song's bones, as Auerbach blues-tinged vocals repeatedly exclaim that, "everybody knows that a broken heart is blind". 'Gold on the Ceiling' again hangs its hat on Auerbach's vocals, structuring the song around them and its churning core riff, coupled with electric harpsichord.
Auerbach's 1950s Harmony Stratotone provides the grimy backbone of El Camino, for example the now familiar riff (for Black Keys fans, at least) of first single 'Lonely Boy'. The hazy, spacious production of Danger Mouse, working on his first Black Keys album since 2008's Attack & Release, comes to the forefront in the excellent 'Money Maker'. Auerbach and Carney don't forget to nod towards their previous material either, the soulful 'Sister' would have been at home on Brothers while 'Mind Eraser' would fit easily into anything from their first few albums.
El Camino, Auerbach says, is heavily influenced by the speed rock of the likes of The Cramps and The Clash and this shows throughout, particularly on 'Hell of a Season' while 'Stop Stop' is pure garage rock, as if someone had bundled The Seeds into a time machine and brought them to the present day.
Over the course of their discography The Black Keys have slowly transformed from minimalists into multi-instrumentalists and listening to this happen over the course of seven albums has been fascinating. El Camino sounds like an aural love letter to the influences of Auerbach and Carney and it is represented here without a hint of pretension to announce a late contender for album of 2011.