Friday, December 9, 2011

El Camino Dances With The Ghosts Of Legends


Rock and Roll is America. It has been since Rocket 88 blended blues with gospel and sent the world on its side. What brings the best out of the genre is also the same with the United States. It’s the soup bowl, brought to a boil and turned into a fabulous meal. As popular music is poked and prodded to an autotuned sodium-free, fat-free can of Progresso, the Black Keys are an MSG-filled bowl of chili down at the local diner.

I’ll admit. I’m a fanboy of the Akron duo and have been since first hearing the dirty fuzz of Rubber Factory. The pure lonely storytelling grit of Stack Shot Billy built and borrowed on American music history as the country blended the heart of its immigrants into one melted pot. Even listening to that album seven years ago, I’m not certain the path I expected the Black Keys to take would have led to this.

The peak seemed to appear last year when the ultimately satisfying Brothers was after a couple of solid, yet semi-disappointing efforts (Attack and Release, Magic Potion), the Keys opened eyes outside of their fan base and inside kicked down another door.

It’s perhaps harder for artists to remain true to what they are and keep their original fans as wide-eyed devotees than anything else. Metallica failed at it. Bob Dylan failed at it. Hell, even the Beatles pushed fans away in their late years. You can argue those musicians didn’t sell-out, rather took what was their natural path. But the Black Keys’ natural path is the same dust-filled bumpy road it’s traveling on.

Not only did they not sell-out, they widened that road’s shoulders without paving it.

It’s hard to deny how high the bar has been pushed by the Black Keys with El Camino. Brothers was a phenomenal treat, though an extension of past efforts. El Camino transcends the previous work, borrows from rock legends and dances with their ghosts. From the second you drop the needle on the vinyl or push play on the iPod, you can’t turn away. It opens with Lonely Boy which may be the best rock song in a decade. It’s simple. It’s pure. It’s dirty. It’s marvelously addicting, worthy of temporary hearing loss.

Had this been left as a single, it would be the Keys’ best effort. But for 35 more minutes, the album just. Keeps. Rolling. Before you blink, it’s over and you’re left breathless. The Keys string you along like an unfaithful lover, blending a tinge of Motown in Dead and Gone, a dab of Zeppelin in Little Black Submarines, a spoonful of Cream in Stop Stop, a bit of Skynyrd in Mind Eraser.

Yet each song belongs exclusively to the Keys. Taut lyrically and simple they’re at their best on El Camino. The lonely guitar kicking off Run Right Back is followed by a guttural grind of Auerbach’s guitar and the pulse altering drum of Carney roars. Around the corner is the brilliant thumbprint of producer Danger Mouse, who flirts with Gnarls Barkley’s soulful hip hop on Sister. When it all ends, you’re left in a breathless, dizzied stare.

This may be the Black Keys’ boiling culmination, but if it’s part of their ascension to the peak, good God are we in for a treat.

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