… El Camino, The Black Keys (Music Review)
You’d never expect traditionally-based blues duo The Black Keysto provide the rocking dance soundtrack to the Australian summer. Sure they’ve produced some catchy floor fillers in the past, but it’s a different thing altogether to create an ambience of sound that is equally suitable for sweaty dancing in a club and laying around the pool when it’s too hot to move.
But upon hearing single Lonely Boy, with it’s edgy riff, bright keys backing, “woah” based chorus that anyone can sing along to, and a foot stomping beat that will get you up and dancing for weeks of hot days, you realise they might’ve cracked it. Coupled with a viral video hit featuring their trademark humour, the tune gave the Keys the exposure and the goods to get people very excited for their latest release, El Camino.
Thankfully, those who bought the album off the strength of the single will not be disappointed. In fact, it might be better than is expected from the Keys.
The most significant improvement from previous albums is just how complete the sound now is. The Keyshave always strictly adhered to a live recording process to properly keep the bluesy feel. But the single electric guitar and drums have always felt a little empty in the big, echoey studio. On El Camino, the addition of synth chords to cover some of the silent holes, and a steady bass riff on most tracks, really helps to fill out the sound. Contrasted with Howlin’ For You (from Brothers), where the electric guitar riff, backed only by a drum beat, felt skinny and lonely, sustained key chords in the background of here add an ambience fans might not have noticed they were missing, whilst also really complimenting the summer feel.
So how can this album be such a huge step away from the style they’ve come to define, and yet also be such big step forward?
For one, the Keys haven’t forgotten how to pace a song. Gold on the Ceiling carries you perfectly until bringing out a big, gutsy chorus at just the time. Its contrast is the very next track, Little Black Submarines, which starts as a morose, longing, and softly spoken ballad, before transitioning into a big guitar solo, and finally bringing on the full band at the end. Along with Run Right Back, they’re all as boisterously energetic and danceable as the headline single.
At the other end, Stop Stop and Nova Baby cruise along like a chilled car ride to the coast, before Mind Eraser burns itself out nicely to finish the album when the sun is setting and everyone is too hot and bothered to dance anymore.
But such is the contrast between the two halves of the album, you feel like you want to start it all over again, mainly to revisit the energetic beats at the start in order to get the warm night off to a ripping start. El Camino feels like two albums with completely different vibes cut it half and stitched together in the middle. If you went to get a drink at the mid way point, you’d come back and suddenly find everyone tanning and stoically ignoring your questions as to what happened to the dance floor.
There aren’t too many albums which are honestly appropriate for such contrasting situations, and while I appreciate the adaptability, it does leave the album as a whole feeling a little indecisive. Rather than starting on a high and mellowing out nicely towards the end, the album is obviously missing a few songs in the middle to comfortably shift the mood between the two halves.
Some might also say this contributes to the first few tracks being too frenetic and, from an overall album point of few, uncomfortably crammed altogether in the top end, but this doesn’t really hinder the albums replay-ability. It also doesn’t need the gimmick of suiting two different moods to keep you coming back to it almost too often over the hot months. Make no mistake; overall and each track individually, it is a damn fine music.
That being said, El Camino is a difficult prospect to call for long time Keys fans. Some will happily recognise their favourite aspects of the Keys in a much more complete and entertaining package. Others will malign the loss of the modern blues soul.
Everyone else will love an album that will at times spark you into grooving, and at others seem like a relaxing, chilled breeze.