The Black Keys have become part of the mainstream this year, at least in the USA, with Grammy awards and an increasingly large live following. They’ve been prolific of late and 'El Camino' represents, by today’s standards, a rapid follow up to 2010’s 'Brothers'. Radio-friendly is the best description of the music and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but for those who appreciate the breadth of their work, it’s not the most exciting set they’ve turned in.
Certainly it is a more immediately welcoming listen than the previous album or indeed Dan Auerbach’s really fine solo album, 2009’s 'Keep It Hid'. There are plenty of overdubs to fill out the two-man format of drums and guitar that anchors their live performance, and characterises their early work so strongly - 'Thickfreakness' remains my favourite of theirs and I particularly like its raw energy.
Dan Auerbach’s voice remains as distinctive as ever, and especially on the more bluesy 'Little Black Submarines', he turns in a tremendous performance. The interplay between front man Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s drums is as tight and sassy as ever but the more commercial material – the album’s intent is set out by the first three songs 'Lonely Boy', 'Dead And Gone' and the 70’s influenced 'Gold On The Ceiling' - still feels a bit ordinary.
Those new to the band may well like it a lot, but I can’t escape feeling that they’ve come up short of ideas, temporarily at least, and the second half of the album runs severely out of steam. This applies as much to the subject matter of the songs as to the music. I have the impression that the songs aren’t really about anything very much at all, being sort of generic love songs, and consequently the album feels very Black Keys ‘lite’.
The Black Keys have set very high standards over the last decade and they’ve had a good measure of success. They’ve produced several very strong records as they’ve taken their music a long way. But this feels like an album that they didn’t need to release and, by comparison with their best, it lacks inspiration.
'El Camino' is available to purchase at iTunes, Amazon.co.uk etc. Find more on The Black Keys at theblackkeys.com.