The Black Keys have previously been known for a blues-based sound, which put their roots in the Mesozoic era, by modern standards. But with their stunning new “El Camino,” they hark back to a different epoch of dinosaur rock, sounding like… T. Rex.
That’s right, they’ve gone glam – gloriously. The two-piece outfit’s formerly stripped-down core sound has been thickened up into something much more akin to Led Zeppelin’s version of the blues, but with handclaps and female backing vocals.
If this is selling out, as a few of the fans from their early-2000s indie days will surely insist, then bang a gong (bring it on).
A not-so-secret weapon in this latest transformation is the brilliant producer Danger Mouse, a.k.a. the half of Gnarls Barkley that is not Cee-Lo Green. He was on board for the Black Keys’ greatest and most game-changing album to date, 2008’s “Attack and Release,” but was MIA for their bluesy, spartan hit album “Brothers” — except for, tellingly, its hit single, “Tighten Up.” Now that the mighty Mouse is back in the fold, co-writing all the tracks and playing keyboards, the duo is effectively a power trio.
As he proved with his work on “Attack and Release,” Danger Mouse is a master of making the simplest guitar line sound unexpected, explosive and revelatory. Credit for knowing where to place each part for maximum effectiveness should also go to mixer Tchad Blake, a great producer in his own right … and, not incidentally, to the guy playing all those parts, frontman Dan Auerbach, who has great instincts for when to suddenly make a fuzztone really, really fuzzy, and when to make each string into a laser beam.
Besides throwing in subtle dollops of modern synths, Danger Mouse adds plenty of vintage organ parts, creating a clever bridge between the late-‘60s British blues-rock that still sounds like the Keys’ primary influence and the modern indie day. He’s also smart enough to allow for plenty of moments where you hear just guitar and drums – not as a sop to the duo’s old fans, probably, so much as for sheer dynamics.
Looking at the lyric sheet, you’d expect something a lot mopier, starting with the opening track and first single, “Lonely Boy.” It appears the Keys might have run into some gold diggers on the yellow brick road to success, with the skepticism of “Money Maker” being only the most blatant example of the album’s deep suspicion of the fairer sex. “She doesn’t read much/But there’s no doubt/She’s been written about,” Auerbach sings in “Run Right Back,” one of a string of songs about being attracted to unavailable, shallow, and/or untrustworthy gals.
But, words aside, “El Camino” is great date-night music, as raucous and celebratory on the surface as it is nervous underneath. The group’s ties to the great Brit-rock of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s remain, but with a lot of production touches from the glitter-rock that delegitimized rock but also made it more fun in the mid-‘70s.
If Cream had a wink, a beat, and you could dance to it, it’d be the Black Keys.