Much has been made of the “Rock Revival” of the early 2000s. To summarize, a bunch of bands came to the rescue of an increasingly soulless genre. With the death of Cobain in the early 90s, many bands went down dark paths, and those unfortunate paths eventually caused them to make songs such as this. But bands such as The White Stripes came out of thin air with a hard blues-rock sound and provided the evening out of hormone levels, but in all honesty, rock has been stripped of its vital organs long ago, and The White Stripes, in all their brilliance, were not enough to change the entire scope of popular music.
It’s always best not to beat around the bush on such matters: Basically, rock and roll, long ago stripped of its heart, has presently been depleted of all testosterone levels. Personified, the atomic mass of Adele’s unlikely hit, “Rolling in The Deep,” far outweighs the collective personified testicles of many present rock and roll bands that dominate Top 40 radio (although I do like “Moves Like Jagger,” but you get my point). To emphasize my point, you know times are a-changin’ in rapid when passionate male-oriented groups (masculinists?) are starting to form, with Taylor Lautner as their dart board, protesting cultural objectification and commodification of men.
Not to be mistaken, rock is far from strictly male territory. Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Lil Kim, and even Avril Lavigne (who unfortunately must be included, because according to Michael Scott, rocks harder than anyone alive) have proven such claims to be false. But there’s no denying that music, speaking in a general sense, has lost its edge. Edge, mind you, has nothing to do with the raspy-voiced, incomprehensible whiskey-ramblings of Nickelback. That is dangerous thinking, so dangerous that coupled with an atrocious talent for song writing, you could become the worst group of all time (yes, Creed is slightly better than Nickelback) and if things slip really far, far past what the average human being is incapable of envisioning the depths of Hell would be like, you could potentially make this song.
In the years following what would become The White Stripes’ last offering, 2007’s Icky Thump, The Black Keys surprisingly filled the void for me that Jack and Meg left. No instance of void filling was more apparent than their 2010 album, Brothers. I was amazed to discover that bluesy, hard rock was still alive in some quarters (aside from being alive in the almost 70 year old bones of Keith Richards), and one didn’t need the handy drum work of Meg White to do it.
Prior to the release of El Camino, the brothers were starting to grow weary. Constant touring and newfound fame waned on them somewhat, and in the process almost forgot what their original goals were in beginning: to make music. At the last second, the duo decided to scrap plans for another grueling tour, and create a new album instead. In an interview, Patrick Carney, one half of the talented duo, had this to say: “We could have waited another year or so, and milked the Brothers album and kept touring, but we like bands, and our favourite bands growing up and even today, are bands that put out a lot of music and every album is different from the last.
Carney’s latter sentiment is the defining characteristic about The Black Keys catalogue that is so worthy of praise and admiration. As an artist, the ability to transform on every record without losing both the tangible and intangible qualities that made you unique in the first place, is in euphemistic terms, very difficult to do. Many artists have tried and failed in this regard, such as hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco. After capturing the ears of many with his first two albums, the rapper decided to blend electro-pop sounds with the standard 808 drums on his third outing, and created, speaking again in euphemistic terms, one of the shittiest albums ever made.
Imbued with the powers of the great goddess Cliché, I would say that the Black Keys know music. Such a vague perspective gains meaning when one compares Brothers with El Camino. While discs are outstanding, both in lyric and sonic terms, the records have marked differences. Brothers was mostly blues, with rock sprinkled in. But El Camino takes the opposite approach. This is evident in “Lonely Boy,” the lead single from the album. This is rock at its finest, an impressive nod to the garage bands that preceded them. This song, in all likelihood, might rock harder than Avril Lavigne.
The stellar beginning to the record does not burn out in the subsequent tracks. In fact, “Lonely Boy” sets the pace for a strong collection of gut-wrenching rhythms, tortured vocal howling, and fast-paced guitar riffs. “Dead and Gone” is equally, if not more tantalizing than the single.
One of the best things about The Black Keys is how much they clearly relish the art of creating music. This sentiment extends itself most notably in their music, as the band is known for their lighthearted subject matter. Gleaming from the long career of the band, it seems that they don’t take themselves too seriously. The all too popular, “we-are-just-artists” disposition, wrapped in all its spectacular level of bullshit, has never had the misfortune to befall The Black Keys. They have allowed their music to be played on commercials, and have a few notable TV appearances to boot. The peculiar theory that musicians do not actually have to exist in a constant state of douchebaggery is indeed breaking new ground, and of course more research remains to be done to see if such a concept could actually sustain itself in the future.
El Camino is a perfect example of how musicians don’t have to subscribe to the common pseudo-intellectual-and-psuedo-artistic-I-only-make-music-for-myself musician, or the equally common I’m-only-in-it-for-the-money-and-hoes musician. It’s nice to know a peaceful balance actually exists somewhere in the middle. The lack of pretentious attiudes in the band is evident in songs like “Money Maker,” which could provide perfect ambiance for any strip club in America. Lyrics like “She was milk and honey/She was filthy money” would probably be associated with larger issues and themes if applied to a more serious-minded band or artist, a la Bob Dylan, but chalk these ones up to the light-hearted nature of the band. Additionally, “Nova Baby” also provides for fun lyrical wordplay.
“Little Black Submarines” is one of the album’s highlights, if such things exist on an album complete with musical gems. The music commences in a tranquil, yet restrained fashion, but soon culminates into a harrowing romp of music and emotion. Juxtaposing aesthetics of beauty with those of the beast has always provided a gratifying paradox in music. On first listen, the climatic overture and tonal shift may come as surprise during the middle point of the song, but in subsequent listens its easy to discern the steady building process evident not only in the music but in the vocals as well. Both get progressively louder Auerbach’s voice is the perfect voice for such an effect, never indulging in the sentimental, nor the chaotic. A nice, sonically engaging niche in the middle.
Since I’ve far exceeded the word limit, writing about topics that have little to do with the band, I will summarize by paraphrasing a quote by Chuck Klosterman, the famous pop cultural critic and essayist. He once wrote that Led Zeppelin is a band that when listened to, causes a person to feel that they are progressively becoming a better, cooler person. I feel the same about The Black Keys. Like potato chips, it is nearly impossible to listen to one song on El Camino, and not naturally drift into another. The only dull moment in the album occurs at the 3:15 mark on the song “Mind Eraser,” because it brings a close to a near flawless album. My only complaint with the album is that it is much too short at only eleven tracks, but hopefully, speaking in glass-half-full terms (thanks Cliché), The Black Keys have many surprises in store for the future.