The vehicle on the cover of The Black Keys' follow-up to Brothers is not, as you might think, a Chevrolet El Camino.
The album title (Spanish for "the road" or "the way") refers instead to the notion of pilgrimage: the humble minivan shown is the one in which the band spent the first two years of its existence, criss-crossing America on an endless string of shows, slowly building up the fanbase – and the expertise – which led them to the Grammy-winning success of Brothers and further still, to the 11 tracks which make up this tremendous, hook-laden, all-killer-no-filler collection, by some distance the most powerful, compelling rock album of the year.
The involvement of producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton from the start as an integral part of the writing and arrangement process has resulted not just in stronger, more pop-conscious hooks, but also in a more muscular interplay of bass and guitar lines than on previous Black Keys albums. On several tracks, the bass is prominently upfront in New Order manner, with guitar and organ bedded in behind, while Pat Carney's drums punch things along with aggressive panache, often at tempos well in excess of anything the duo have done before. There's an urgency and drive about these tracks that's simply exhilarating, right from the weirdly engaging de-tuned guitar figure that heralds the irresistible "Lonely Boy". Coming soon to a chart near you, this is a slice of superior, intelligent pop-rock that plays artfully with influences, without once seeming academic, the T Rex-style offbeat guitar twitch riding a propulsive drum shuffle, and the song exploding exultantly into massed vocal choruses of almost gospel splendour.
If you can stop yourself putting "Lonely Boy" on repeat, the glories pile up ever higher, with a pronounced 1970s flavour permeating many tracks. With its lolloping blues groove punctuated by squalls of piercing lead guitar, "Gold on the Ceiling" sounds like the GlitterBand backing Johnny Winter; the epic "Little Black Submarines" transforms mid-song from moody acoustic reflection to full-blown Led Zep blues-rock barrage; and there's even a voice-bag guitar solo on "Money Maker", summoning echoes of Jeff Beck. Burton, meanwhile, laces threads of celeste, little glockenspiel details and subtle organ washes throughout the album, deftly occupying the empty spaces once present on The Black Keys' more spartan recordings: at a guess, I'd imagine the evocative melody of "Dead and Gone" derives from his interest in Italian film music, harnessed here to another declamatory funk-stomp groove.
Dan Auerbach's lyrics are fairly perfunctory – he'll go anywhere she goes, money is filthy, a broken heart is blind, she's the worst thing he's been addicted to, and so on – but their very lack of reflection just adds to the sense of momentum barreling El Camino along at a furious pace, as if there's no time to get too deeply into things; and his frequent touches of falsetto ultimately convey much more, in terms of soulful engagement with his subject, than mere words. Here, the voice is just another instrument, primed to help the music punch its way more efficiently into your heart.
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