The Black Keys' "El Camino"
When I first heard of these guys, I thought, "Oh great. Just what the world needs: _another_ fuckin' two-piece blues band. Feh." That was seven albums ago, and I only just actually heard them a few weeks ago, when Frank Cervantez laid a copy of Brothers on me and shut my mouth. With album art evocative of Howlin' Wolf's This is Howlin' Wolf's new album, Brothers was a nasty blast of bloozy Rawk, redolent of all manner of '60s-'70s stuff I dig, from Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac to Funkadelic to the Jeff Lynne-era Move to T. Rex, with the sickest 2011 guitar tones this side of St. Vincent, proof positive (as if any more were needed) that Ohio is truly the secret music capital of America.
Black Keys frontguy Dan Auerbach just might be the best American rock singer in a generation or two, his voice alternately channeling the spiritually blasted masculinity of P. Green (who, alone among his '60s Brit peers, recognized blues as an existential state rather than a musical form, and gave us some of the most emotionally naked statements ever made via pop song), the rasp of Move/ELO/Traveling Wilburys popmeister J. Lynne, and the enervatedly effete vibrato of T. Rex's doomed star Marc Bolan -- sometimes within the same song. And he's got a library of minor-key riffs that infuse his songs with the proper amount of grit, no matter how catchy and hooky they become. For an example of how this can work, dig "Gold On the Ceiling," with "Lynne" and "Bolan" voices in full effect and a guitar break consisting of a single repeated figure that drills its way into your brain.
Speaking of songs, the ones on El Camino were all written in the studio, in collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, and they're uniformly uptempo: Apparently, the size of the crowds the Black Keys have been playing to in the wake of Brothers' success freaked 'em out a little, and they responded by speeding up their jams a bit. "Lonely Boy," f'rinstance, starts out like it might be a stoner rock apocalypse before drummer Patrick Carney comes in with a fast, blood-simple bumpa-chicka rockabilly beat that takes it somewhere Entahrly Other, confounding the listener's expectations. It's a remarkably effective gambit. Make no mistake: This is 21st century pop music, but it's 21st century pop music built on a rock-solid foundation that reaches from Charlie Patton to Led Zeppelin. (Dig the second half of "Little Black Submarines," which could be a Presence outtake, down to the sloppily precise guitar solo.)
That said, in more ways than just Auerbach's vocal similarity to Jeff Lynne, the proximate model for much of El Camino is ELO, after that Move spinoff ditched '67 Beatles copyism to take on the pop (and R&B!) forms of its day around Face the Music time -- not a period I'm particularly keen on myself, but I think the analogy is apt. Rather than merely providing an auditory bath for listeners to immerse themselves in, the Black Keys are now using their raw materials to craft memorable tuneage to engage the ear and backside a la ELO. (Just listen to "Run Right Back," "Sister," or the closing "Mind Eraser.") "Money Maker," on the other hand, is an invigorating blast of Estrus Records-like garage-revival grunt that includes a head-spinning, electronically altered solo. "Dead and Gone" and "Nova Baby" add some Motown to the mix, and make me want Danger Mouse to produce the next Scott Morgan album.
At this point, the Black Keys seem just about unstoppable. I can't wait to hear what they'll do next. More to the point, I need to investigate their earlier work. Gee, it's nice to have a mainstream -- cover of Rolling Stone, even -- rock band to root for again. (Released on Nonesuch Records, which I remember from childhood as the label that released all the Renaissance recorder music my big sis used to listen to, now better known, I suppose, as Wilco's label.)