The Black Keys’ El Camino: a Duo Delivering a BIG sound

6 Feb

The best album of 2011 arrived late in the year. Released on December 6, El Camino, the 7th studio album from the Black Keys, is a dazzling study on 60s blues riffs, classic R&B grooves, and the brutish psychedelic Brit-rock of the early 70’s.  Like previous Keys records, El Camino is not subtle.  It rumbles, it jangles, it screams.  The powerful drumming of Patrick Carney, mixed with the driving rhythms and haunting vocals of Dan Auerbach scream out of the speakers at mach-20.  However, in contrast to their previous raw, lo-fi attempts, this record uses the studio as an instrument to enhance the song arrangements, and producer/collaborator Danger Mouse plays that instrument masterfully. New voicings and textures enhance the solid, hooky melodies in ways we hadn’t heard before on a Black Keys record. Instead, we had grown accustomed to big beats and crunchy hooks from the Akron, Ohio duo.

On previous records like Brothers and Attack and Release, the Keys took their cues from their mentors.  If you close your eyes and listen to Attack and Release you would swear you were listening to a young, pre-slow hand, Clapton, patiently pounding out classic blues riffs from his flat in London. However, El Camino uses those influences and polishes them with production to reveal that the strength of this record is not in the masterful playing of the musicians involved, but in the songwriting and in the arranging.  In short…El Camino is a really f*cking good batch of songs.

Recording a beast of a record.

Recording for the album began in early March 2011, with the Keys once again tapping the fabulous Danger Mouse to collaborate, who also produced and co-wrote every song on the album.  In those early days of March, the band began the planning and production completely from scratch. Easy Eye Sound Studio, owned by Auerbach and the band’s personal rehearsal space, had been newly built in an old industrial section of Nashville, Tennessee and outfitted with vintage recording gear purchased from some of the more famous recording meccas of the south. Meccas like Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, home of classic recordings by Aretha, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, to name a few.

So the Black Keys holed up at Easy Eye for 41 days with Danger Mouse and his engineer Kennie Takahashi.  The studio’s unique characteristics, like the bathrooms and stairwells, were used to record vocals, hand claps and guitar parts. The result is an authentic sounding collage of sounds, tones and textures. All of which contribute to the warm vibe of El Camino.

The album was mixed by the legendary Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam) who received songs via mail in batches of two and three at a time as Auerbach and Carney continued to work and hone the arrangements in Nashville. Blake described the songs as “basically done” when he received them, saying on The Black Keys Fan Lounge, “(El Camino) came to me much closer to what they wanted the finished record to be so it was more of a balance job.” His task was to organize the tracks, hone the edits, as well as adjust the effects and general sonics of the instruments. The result is great sounding record, and Blake’s mixes sound organic and consistent from track to track.  Even when he’s switching from quiet pieces like “Little Black Submarines” into loud raucous songs like “Money Maker,” that organic consistency is there.

A really f*cking good batch of songs.

El Camino opens with “Lonely Boy,” the album’s first single. It’s a brash and effective break-up song that kicks off the record like a 40-yard field goal. The song begins in typical Black Keys fashion – a single guitar and a biting riff. As you listen to “Lonely Boy” progressively build to a frenzy, everything seems to fall away as Aurbach’s haunting vocal begin.  The lyrics are clever, and if you didn’t know better, you might just think that you’re listening to the meta-slick grooves of T.Rex (think “Bang a Gong”).  “Lonely Boy” offers a perfect counterpoint to the previous work by the Black Keys.  El Camino foregoes the live, stripped down style that was their sixth studio effort, Brothers, for the wall of sounds and layering of multiple vocals and guitar parts in order to create a lush sound-scape for your aural pleasure.  It’s intense.

The next notable accomplishment on this record is “Gold on the Ceiling.”  This is quite a masterful piece of production. An unassuming riff begins in a familiar way. A 12-bar blues that begins to build.  As the clavinet organ pops in and the hand claps take hold, the “pocket” of this song begins to form.  This is the place where the collective groove of everything that’s happening has come together so perfectly to form a warm, delightful pocket, where you could lay for hours in a blissful dream-like state.

And “Gold on the Ceiling” has some deep pockets.  Once again, everything melts into the background to give way to one of the more soulful vocal performances on the album. The production and arrangements on this song are nearly perfect, made evident by the fact that you don’t notice what’s happening until it’s happening.

The last song to note is “Money Maker.”  This song’s lyrics and guitar work are adequate, but the drumming of Patrick Carney steals the show here. Switching from tight, funky verses to all out rocking on the choruses, Carney shows why he’s one of the best in the business, going from complete control to reckless abandon and back again without batting an eyelash.  He drives this song and delivers it from ho-hum to holy shit. “Money Maker” is a song that might be forgettable if done by any other band, but here: the drummer has some.

To wrap up this wordy blow job, let me just say that El Camino is a heck of a record that you just need to run out and get, download, and experience. I could felate every song on this record, but I’ll save the money shot for your Saturday night headphone experience.

Enjoy!

Carl Sexton

For more info, check out The Black Keys official site: http://www.theblackkeys.com/

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