The Black Keys may be single-handedly keeping blues rock out of the poor house. While in recent years there have been other heavies emerging in the genre, the undeniable leader of the pack is still this two-man outfit from Akron, Ohio. However, it’s getting harder to keep them rooted in the genre they’re accustomed to.
Since their first release in 2002, the Black Keys have proven themselves to be one of the finest working groups in the industry. Throughout the years their music has matured and changed to reflect the shifting interests of frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney. While a definite shift can be heard across all of their albums, the biggest change in their style came from the 2010 album Brothers.
Before the release of Brothers, the Black Keys never strayed far from the rootsy blues rock that had made them mainstays on college radio. But through collaboration with hip-hop producer Danger Mouse, Brothers became a much more complex animal. This album wasn’t just another distortion-heavy collection of garage rock and blues riffs. It was a mesh of rock and rhythm — the Black Keys with soul. In the last two years, they’ve stepped half out of the blues-rock genre in which they grew up, making them much more difficult to define.
What was so surprising about Brothers was how the group managed to take such a departure from their usual sound and still maintain the same spirit that made their music great in the first place.
El Camino also contains all of the old elements that made the Black Keys such a refreshing group. Auerbach’s songwriting is still a deceptively simple weave of anger and longing, allowing the listener to experience a good deal of conflicting feelings in the space of one song. Some tracks, like “Little Black Submarine,” make bold changes in tempo and tone halfway through, becoming completely different songs in the space of a second, but never losing the thread of their meaning.
El Camino is a triumph in much the same way that Brothers was. By mixing their capable musicianship with the masterful production of Danger Mouse, the group has continued to evolve in the way they make music. The instruments, harmonies, even the tempo of some of the songs on El Camino are entirely unlike anything on the group’s first few albums. They have meshed their traditional combination of guitar and drum with less than ordinary blues instruments. They traded the harmonica for a synthesizer.
The asset of having a producer who usually works outside of a group’s genre is a fresh perspective and offers a deeper pool of resources. Of course, the problem with it is that often musicians are inflexible in the way they write and producers are unreasonable in their expectations. This is the reason that cross-genre collaborations rarely pay dividends, but if their last two albums are any indication, it seems that the Black Keys and Danger Mouse have found a natural rapport together.