While the Black Keys may not wield the same bluesy-rock power they threw at us on great early records like Thickfreakness, not much has changed in their musical world. What they’ve done is trade in unadulterated riff power for a more nuanced retro-pop and classic rock vibe, and if the results have been decidedly mid-tempo since 2008’s Attack & Release, they’ve also been consistently engaging, often charming, and sometimes downright brilliant.
It was their last album, Brothers, that finally saw then get some serious attention for their stuff, which is curious because it’s also their most wide-open record. It ran 15 songs over the course of an hour, and gave us everything from funky blues numbers to stadium stompers to pop oddities. But as much as it stretched their rock ideas into new pop worlds, it was also too big for its own good, the runtime dragging down some great songs with too many moments of sameness.
Now, El Camino feels like the record Brothers should have been. The subtle stretching of their aesthetic — though, make no mistake, this is boilerplate Black Keys in a lot of ways — continues here, but the vibe is both looser and yet more controlled. In 11 songs and just 38 minutes, the Black Keys do everything they did on Brothers, yet they do it better and they trim off a hell of a lot of fat.
Opener and lead single “Lonely Boy” may start with the heavy, whammy bar bending first riff, but then the organ kicks in and its retro-surf-rock all the way. It’s a brighter sound from the band, and it works well, with Dan Auerbach’s trademark howl softening into something sweeter but no less pained. The riff on “Gold on the Ceiling” vacillates between country twang and rumbling chug, but the chorus updates the stadium drums that came up on Brothers to a much more soulful effect. Elsewhere, “Little Black Submarines” spends its first half as the band’s dustiest, most spare ballad, before breaking open into a newly huge rock sound, something far closer to the Who’s guitar-and-drum dramatics than anything the band has done before.
All this stuff is housed in the same sort of hooks and spare, driving drums you expect, but the organ work here is what sets El Camino apart from previous records. It’s a dangerous move to drift away from the low end, but these songs feature high-end organs heavily, sometimes over Auerbach’s guitar — which often mirrors the organ with its own shrill chord strikes. “Lonely Boy” rides on a sunburst of keys, while “Dead and Gone” takes on a Spector-size echo with its breathy layers. “Gold on the Ceiling” builds on a staticky, high organ riff that bridges the gap between the simple guitar work and the layered vocals perfectly.
There are more stripped down moments — the jangling guitar of “Stop Stop” is particularly effective — that work well too. Of course, songs like “Money Maker” and “Sister” are strong, but feel close to retread, especially since much of the record still deals in Auerbach’s penchant for woman-done-me-wrong blues. But the bulk of El Camino keeps that approach fresh by twisting their rock sound into a pop sensibility that may feel nostalgic, but here — in this concentrated, potent dose — reveals itself to be just as eager to move forward as it is to revel in the past. The El Camino is dead; long live El Camino.