The Black Keys, Akron’s unsuspecting blues-rock saviors, faced ridiculous pressure in following up their expansive 2010 breakout effort, Brothers. Big things happened in the subsequent year: The duo (vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) graced the cover of Spin, tucked away three GRAMMYs, played SNL and raked in huge piles of advertising cash — big-deal developments for a band that recorded their debut album in a basement nearly a decade earlier. Brothers found the band at a creative and commercial high-point, simultaneously embracing soulful pop melodies and the spirited muscle of their live shows, even as they gently experimented with psychedelic overdubs — emphatically darting away from the sleepy, awkward soundscapes of the Danger Mouse-produced identity crisis Attack & Release.
On El Camino, the Black Keys are done trying to impress anybody, sounding wonderfully unhinged throughout the album’s compact 38 minutes. The name of the game is hard-hitting focus; spontaneity; keeping it simple, stupid; never over-thinking or over-cooking any swampy chorus or tossed-off lyric (“Hey, my my, she’s a money-maker/ Hey, my my, she’s gonna take ya,” goes one gem). After only producing one Brothers track (the emphatic “Tighten Up”), Danger Mouse returns to man the boards — and though his approach on Attack & Release was heavy-handed, never quite gelling with the duo’s style, he takes a wiser backseat approach on El Camino. His presence still lingers (check that whirring Hammond organ and retro-glock twinkle on the hooky “Dead and Gone”), but this time around, he’s adapted to the Keys’ raw rock approach, instead of forcing a synthesis with his bread-n-butter symphonic electro-pop.
The looseness is intoxicating. “Money Maker”‘s beastly bass lags behind a millisecond or two, pushing and pulling in gnarly blues warfare with Auerbach’s guitars. Carney, charmingly, still swings with the finesse of a caveman on Ritalin — despite his finest efforts at a multi-tiered groove on standout “Stop Stop,” dude nearly trips over his own drum sticks. Those sassy female vocalizers on “Gold on the Ceiling” would fit nicely onstage in a broke-down backwoods bar. The acoustic-ballad-turned-electric-stomper “Little Black Submarines” unintentionally evokes Tenacious D channeling Led Zeppelin, and the result is a goofier (yet no less rocking) “Stairway to Heaven” demoed in a truck-stop bathroom stall. Meanwhile, “Sister” is the Black Keys at their glammiest and hammiest, Auerbach’s fuzz-bathed, bee-stung guitars layered impeccably over a wicked Carney stomp.
Perhaps the Black Keys are America’s finest rock band only because the competition is so depressingly slim. Regardless, with two straight knock-outs on their resume, these guys have clearly earned the title.