Over the past decade, guitar and drum duo the Black Keys has brought its forceful take on garage rock, blues and rockabilly to a mass audience. As a band whose closest antecedents are great but largely unheard cult acts like Flat Duo Jets and the Sonics, this could be considered something of an upset. But the band’s success is no fluke: Over time, guitarist and lead vocalist Dan Auerbach and producer-drummer Patrick Carney have alchemized their influences into a unique sound, one that is uncompromising in its toughness but has hooks and charm to spare.
Previous Black Keys releases have dwelled on the themes of love, betrayal and existential worry that have long haunted American roots music. “El Camino,” the band’s seventh full-length release, finds it returning to this terrain with no diminishment of inspiration. Opening track “Lonely Boy” weds an urgent, surf-rock riff to a singalong chorus featuring a lament as old as Robert Johnson: “I gotta love that keeps me waiting.” On “Dead and Gone,” high-register harmonies bring out Auerbach’s soulful croon, a technique used frequently on these recordings and to great effect. The band doesn’t go out of its way to vary the approach — one barnstorming groove follows from the next — but it is also never pro forma. “Gold on the Ceiling,” with its Garry Glitter-style big beat and intimations of decadence, demonstrates equal appreciation for ’70s glam and ’50s R&B. As with AC/DC, a group with whom the Black Keys have something of a spiritual kinship, subtle variations on a few unimpeachable musical themes help keep the band consistently exhilarating.
--Timothy Bracy, Dec. 5, 2011