You have to love the traditional blues-man work ethic of The Black Keys. Touring and making records seems to be all they do. Since their formation in 2002 they’ve cut two EPs and seven full length albums, the latest of which is El Camino and it rocks the proverbial buns from here to Nashville, Tennessee. Their first two releases were recorded in drummer Patrick Carney’s basement on fairly old equipment and it wasn’t really until Attack and Release in 2008 that The Black Keys adopted the polished sound that we hear today. Produced by Danger Mouse (the third in a row), El Camino is undoubtedly their cleanest album yet and not just in terms of production. The very fundamentals of the music has taken a much smoother route – what was once gritty, rusty bucket roots and blues is now straight up rock ‘n’ roll. Littered with catchy little hooks and toe tapping rhythms, the album parachutes into more approachable domains.
It’s still not quite pop but on the whole it’s much more accessible than their earlier works. Tracks like ‘Stop Stop’ and ‘Run Right Back’ come across as instant crowd pleasers alongside the chirpy single ‘Lonely Boy’, the video for which has been drawing smiles for weeks now. In fact, that video sums up El Camino perfectly: simple, genius, and thoroughly enjoyable. With most of the tracks lasting in and around three minutes everything bounds through in short feisty bursts. At just over four minutes ‘Little Black Submarines’ is the longest song on the album and sure enough it reeks of Zeppelin – everything from the slow acoustic intro to the meaty kick off rings nostalgia bells of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. It’s not the only arena rock song on the album either, some grandiose muscles are flexed for ‘Mind Eraser’ – at least now they have the means to support the big stadium tunes.
For El Camino the Keys have taken all the elements of their last few albums and fine tuned them into easy to swallow pieces. Arguably they’ve gone decidedly more mainstream with this one but it merely follows the same formula as Brothers, their breakthrough record. Yet shying away from the method that gave rise to stardom just doesn’t make sense at this point. So after years in the murky depths it seems this grubby fish has learned to walk on land and mingle with the mammals.