Attack, Release, Reload
I don’t remember waiting for any album as eagerly as I have been for The Black Keys’ new album, El Camino. In October, I heard a track from it, Lonely Boys, and ever since I have wanted to lay my hands on the blues duo’s seventh full-length album. Seven albums in less than nine years is a staggering achievement by any standard but not only have guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney been relentless with their releases, each of which is followed by hectic touring, but on each of their albums, they have tweaked and evolved the minimalist, near-purist blues sound that has become their hallmark.
The El Camino was a Chevrolet car that was launched by General Motors more than 50 years back. It was one of the first cars of its kind—a coupe that also doubled as a utility vehicle (Ford’s Ranchero was another). I have no idea why the two-member band decided to call their latest album El Camino but they did just that and put a photograph of a car on the cover. Except that the car on the cover of the album is not the El Camino but a staid minivan, the Chrysler Town & Country. Strange are the ways of musicians. There’s nothing strange about the way they sound on their newest album, though. Their hard-edged blues still has its rough and tough feel. The 11 songs are short, totalling just over 38 minutes and the writing—both music and lyrics—characteristically lean. Danger Mouse, the musician’s musician, one half of Gnarls Barkley (the other is Cee Lo Green), and a producer extraordinaire, is back as producer on El Camino (he’d produced the The Black Keys’ 2008 album, Attack & Release, and one track on their last year’s album, Brothers) adding some sheen, backing vocals, handclaps and tambourines, some keyboards and so on, yet The Black Keys sound like they ought to—spare, straight-from-the-heart and solid.
As I mentioned, The Black Keys like to take their sound and add little tweaks to it every time they do a new album. On their 2010 album, Brothers, they infused a bit of old-school soul into their music. That is still there on El Camino but the sound seems fuller (courtesy, possibly, Danger Mouse) and the songs being shorter—most of them barely exceed three minutes—it’s a bit like listening to a carefully assembled bunch of singles, all of them upbeat and highly party worthy. What more could you ask for in December-January?
The Black Keys have often been compared to the White Stripes, Jack and Meg White’s former rock band. Jack and Meg also were a duo and their music too was minimalist—Jack on guitar; Meg on drums. The two put out six studio albums; their music was influenced by the blues (Jack’s searing guitar and penchant for analogue equipment and vintage sounds gave their sound an edgy quality); and their albums always sounded great loud, just as The Black Keys’ albums do. Yet, it would be unfair to club The Black Keys with The White Stripes. The latter had dollops of garage rock and punk in their sound, while if you listen carefully to any of The Black Keys’ albums, they sound different. There’s the blues, of course, but large influences of R&B, soul and even hip-hop. I’d call The Black Keys a bluesier band than The White Stripes were.
The best part of The Black Keys (besides their ability to release so many albums in so little time without compromising on quality) is that they’ve been able to create a burgeoning band of discerning fans. They began in 2002 by wowing the critics first with their debut, The Big Come Up. The critics raved; and soon fans joined the throng and the band became big. In 2003, they released Thickfreakness, which was followed by Rubber Factory, Magic Potion, Attack & Release and then, last year, Brothers. The last one may have catapaulted them into mainstream fame but on each successive album, the duo has kept their basic minimalist, not quite purist blues music constant but also experimented by either adding soul, or rock and roll or even a hint of rap.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, this is a band that I’m totally sold on.