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The Black Keys’ El Camino Rocks and Rolls

Ross Finney | Thursday, January 26, 2012

In the December issue of Rolling Stone, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney gave his outlook on the state of rock music at the present.

His opinion was pretty bleak. He took to task Nickelback, complaining that the band with the most mediocre music was somehow the biggest selling rock band in the country.

More shockingly however, he indicted the folks in the indie music scene, his band’s primary champions for the last ten years, complaining that their standards of authenticity as inversely related to popular success were way out of line, and holding back rock music.

In some ways this was just a musician letting off steam. After ten years of hard work, he has the critical legitimacy and popular appeal to speak off the cuff.

In another greater sense, Carney was positioning his band as the champions of rock and roll in the modern era– popular enough to get on the charts, authentic enough to please music geeks.

The positioning of the Black Keys as the saviors of commercial rock music is a bold move, and one that comes as a bit of a surprise to those of us for whom the group was a backburner band, good but under the radar for the better part of a decade.

Surprising as it may be, given the state of rock music, where the Keys’ only real competitors are the Kings of Leon, on whom the critical community did a 180 after their grab for the mainstream, Carney may just be on to something.

Of course this new role for Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach is predicated entirely on the success of their newest album, and proving that the 2010’s hit Brothers, was no fluke. Luckily, El Camino’s a fantastic rock and roll album.

Produced by Danger Mouse, El Camino manages to rein the Keys’ bluesy jams into tight and effective pop songs, without losing the hard rock edge that fans love.

The album is only eleven songs long, and it plays very quickly. It’s one of the rare rock and roll records where any number of songs could be potential singles, and it has a great sense of balance as an album that often gets overlooked now that we buy single songs more often than full records.

The lead single “Lonely Boy,” is a super catchy tune, that’s fuzzy, exciting, a little glam and already showing up in advertisements.

The second single, “Run Right Back” lacks “Lonely Boy”‘s energetic drive, but melodically is probably the sweetest and catchiest song on the entire album.

The band, who have always been rooted in older music, manage to make something new while still giving deserved nods to their influences.

The blues is obvious but on this album, the Keys have incorporated a broader range of influences, especially on tracks like “Stop Stop”, which could well be Rolling Stones song, and “Hell of a Season”, that has a very distinct Cramps vibe in the opening minutes.

For those less interested in pop stylings and more in the Keys’ rocking side, the album also offers plenty to love.

“Gold on the Ceiling” is an excellent up tempo number with grungy guitar and a rocking chorus that more than warrants some enthusiastic air guitar. “Little Black Submarines” starts as a soft acoustic ditty that, in true old-school Black Keys fashion, slow-burns into heavy electric blues mayhem. It’s awesome.

With El Camino the Black Keys have managed to put out a good rock and roll record that has mainstream appeal, a rarity in today’s market. Early indications are that the album is selling well, and as Patrick Carney astutely pointed out, the Keys, given their continued ability to put out music of this quality, are poised to change the commercial face of rock and roll.

Contact Ross Finney at

trfinney@nd.edu