Keys in the Ignition, Danger Mouses’ Fingerprints all Over The Black Keys’ “El Camino”

The Black Keys constituents Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s previous offering–Brothers–was their first commercial success, despite the fact that it had some noticeable weaknesses. Namely, it featured a large number of ballads and underwhelming up-tempo tracks, which were a huge contrast to the contents of the album’s most endeared, hard-hitting predecessors, “Thickfreakness” and “Rubber Factory.” Now, the Black Keys are back to fill a gaping void in the Alternative Rock scene. They have approached the project with much needed innovation and a revamped sound, in order to create something more than a sequel to their prior commercial success. This venture is marked by a fearless attempt to capture listeners by muscling full speed through perilous terrain, and it reaches its mark without once losing momentum–or a sense of humor.

Auerbach and Carney were taking a risk by returning to the formula of the excessively produced “Attack & Release” and their biggest commercial single yet, “Tighten Up,” from Brothers, by once again teaming up with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton–this time, allowing him full participation in the creative process. His fingerprints are prominent all over this release, but that–in and of itself–is not necessarily a bad thing. Have no fear–The Black Keys have not been recreated in the Gnarls Barkley image, and this is not, yet another spaghetti western for which Burton has such a glaring affinity. In fact, there is very little semblance to any of Burton’s other projects. Instead, the end result is simply a more polished and accessible sound that still holds true to the band’s character, with only the slightest hint of artistic surrender. The Black Keys began a gradual progression toward this style with their last few albums, so it seems like a natural development. What prevents the mishaps of years past is the band’s increased awareness of what works and what will inevitably fall flat.

Despite notable changes, the Black Keys of yesteryear are certainly recognizable in this compilation. There is the all-familiar hand clapping, foot stomping, and pounding bass set to a scenery of rough, fuzzy guitar licks. With “Little Black Submarines” they begin with a ballad-style intro that lacks the distracting falsetto that was oh-so-prominent in Brothers, and halfway through, they turn it full throttle. The transition from haunting splendor to gripping intensity makes a gut-twisting impact that will leave fans salivating for the first opportunity to witness a live performance of this singular track. In “Gold on the Ceiling,” the guys add some luster and opulence that breaks through the nebulous front. As a whole, the tracks are caffeinated diatribes about deceitful women, stolen money, and the like. Although there is some carryover of lyrical vulnerabilities and the overdone themes of their past works, the music’s stylistically rich and witty peculiarities are all-encompassing, which protects the material from being unduly compromised.

While fans of the band’s earlier works might be irritated by the continued trend away from their frenzied, raw energy roots, El Camino is not a far cry from their origins. Carney returns from the watered down percussion that characterized the Brothers interval to his trademark assaults of his drum kit, and Auerbach reinstitutes his more coarse and rousing vocal approach. While it is a more mature and smooth sound, it is punched full of the requisite edginess, distortion, and oddball antics. Amidst the dark and broody mood are some heavy rhythms and thumping beats–thanks to the repeat collaboration with Danger Mouse–that culminates into a much more compelling and momentous successor to the vaguely bland, yet highly recognized, Brothers. There is a sense of cinematic peril and waywardness that is incongruously alluring, and the temptation to ride shotgun through this adventure is palpable.