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The Black Keys: El Camino

Album Review

Ohio duo continue to take stripped-down blues from the garage to the dance floor.

In 10 years, vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have gone from recording albums on analogue tape recorders in their basement and playing dives, to selling out arenas and recording albums on, er, analogue tape recorders in, er, their basement. In terms of sonic power, however, they’ve journeyed to the other side of the rock’n’roll cosmos, and are today the loudest and most dynamic band still standing, crunching through the gears with the kind of rusty roar Jack White could only ever daydream of conjuring up.

As ever, the most remarkable thing about the noise the Black Keys create is that they are a duo – how, you have to wonder, can two scrawny dudes who look as if they’d struggle to open a carton of milk kick up such a riot. The truth is that a preamp collection will only get you so far, and in reality they are no longer just a duo. 

As with their previous album – 2010’s Brother – producer/keyboardist/sound magician Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, has his paw prints all over this record as producer, musician and co-writer. Burton, some may recall, was one half of Gnarls Barkley. And just as they managed to merge retro soul technique with contemporary shine, so he does here. 

El Camino begins and ends with a trio of 60s-flecked pop songs. The first three tracks all feature sassy female backing singers who sound as if they’ve quantum leapt from some night club scene in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. With hand-claps, a Motown beat, snaking, bad-ass bass and bluesy wah-wah licks, Lonely Boy and Dead And Gone are so thunderously good you’re immediately hooked – but before it becomes too commercial and mainstream there is a reminder of the band’s raw blues roots. 

Little Black Submarine is a phenomenal switchback ride that starts out like a spectral, lost-in-the-woods, broken-hearted folk ballad and gradually builds to howling fury. It’s the kind of song you play again and again just to work out how you got from A to B. More back-to-basics, greasy blues rock follows – all the kind of stuff that could trick someone who’s been in a coma for 40 years into believing that it’s still 1971 – before the album closes with the majestic fairground pop of Nova Baby and soul stomper Mind Eraser

You might get bored with it after about 200 plays, but until then El Camino could be your favourite album of the year and quite possibly next year too.

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