Album review: The Black Keys, ‘El Camino’ (Nonesuch)

January 6, 2012

Though they’ve been building a shockingly staunch following since bursting out of Akron, Ohio, in 2002, guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney never gave me anything close to the originality I need to accord such devotion; striking me as sweaty at best onstage, I wrote the Black Keys off as a second-tier White Stripes wannabe on album. Now, I’m not so much sure that I was wrong as I’m pleasantly surprised that they had an effort as powerful as El Camino in ’em for their seventh trip to the studio.

The musicians have cited the Clash as an inspiration for the tracks they laid down in their Nashville home studio, and that would seem to be the Clash of London Calling, in the sense that this is a sprawling, expansive set that pays homage to roots much wider and more diverse than they’d previously given us reason to suspect, all while maintaining a consistent vision uniquely their own.

We get hints of randy glam-rock (in the swaggering “Gold on the Ceiling”), Dr. John-style acid-gospel (“Hell of a Season”), bombastic blues-rock (“Little Black Submarines”),and of course plenty of Nuggets-stylegarage-pop (gotta love that ponding opener “Lonely Boy”). We get heartfelt declarations of love, lust, and the desire for redemption. And, courtesy of producer and songwriting partner Danger Mouse, we get an everything-and-the-kitchen sink sonic swirl and impressive and undeniable wall of sound enhances the songs without ever overwhelming them.

In short, the Black Keys have given us (choose one) the last unqualified masterpiece of 2011 (it was released on Dec. 6) or the first delayed-impact stunner of 2012.

Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.