Music Reviews
9:38 am
Thu December 8, 2011

The Black Keys: A Reinvention On 'El Camino'

Originally published on Thu December 8, 2011 10:12 am

Careening into your ears like the theme to a bank-heist flick is "Lonely Boy," the first single from El Camino. Except the lyric tucked inside the roaring, curve-hugging melody isn't about anything so action-packed as robbing a bank or making a getaway. Instead, Dan Auerbach sings about stasis: "I got a love that keeps me waiting." And, being the sensible raucous rocker that he is, Auerbach is willing to wait out his love, because he knows in his heart that she's worth it. Therein lies the not-so-dirty secret about The Black Keys: These guys come on tough, but they're sensitive souls.

In "Dead and Gone," Auerbach delivers a series of assertions, each of which at first seems to offer the sentiments of the singer, only to be revealed as the words of the lover who's rejecting him. "Don't call me, I'll call you," he says, then adds, "Is what you say." Then comes the kicker rhyme: "I'll obey." One thing the band has learned from the blues is that supplication can be a beautiful thing.

"Little Black Submarines" suggests the stylistic tugs and pulls The Black Keys' members are feeling these days. It begins with a pretty acoustic melody. There's a description of a guy who's been separated from the woman he loves, until, about two minutes in, the song takes on a new, louder urgency: The increasing desperation to avoid the "broken heart" he's singing about is mirrored by a shift in the music, which becomes louder, more vehement, more hard-rock in music terms, and in emotional terms more desperate.

El Camino was co-produced by The Black Keys and Brian Burton, who produces and performs under the name Danger Mouse. Together, they do a good job of turning The Black Keys into a number of things, including an up-to-date version of ZZ Top, heavy on relentless blues-guitar riffs placed within the catchy choruses of a pop song. You can almost hear The Black Keys' beards growing as the duo boogies through the ZZ Toppish tune "Run Right Back."

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are both in their early 30s; moving from their native Akron, Ohio, to Nashville to make their seventh studio album, they've achieved a sound that's frequently brighter, more open and eager, less closed-in or doomstruck. They may sing about being perpetually disappointed in either their own behavior or that of the objects of their affection, but the guitar and drums tell a different story. El Camino turns out to really be their revved-up getaway car, after all: They've moved from state to state, on the run to reinvent themselves. It sounds as though they've gotten away with their sly plan.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the Black Keys' new album "El Camino." The band is guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. Ken says that while the new album retains the band's roots in the blues and R&B, it's also reaching out to a wider audience with its pop and rock touches.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LONELY BOY")

DAN AUERBACH: (Singing) Well, I'm so above you and it's fine to see but I came to love you anyway. So you tore my heart out and I don't mind bleeding. Any old time to keep me waiting, waiting, waiting.

KEN TUCKER: Careening into your ears like the theme to a bank-heist flick, that's "Lonely Boy," the first single from "El Camino." Except the lyric tucked inside the roaring, curve-hugging melody isn't about anything so action-packed as robbing a bank or making a getaway. Instead, Dan Auerbach sings about stasis, quote, "I got a love that keeps me waiting."

And, being the sensible raucous rocker that he is, Auerbach is willing to wait out his love, because he knows in his heart that she's worth it. And therein lies the not-so-dirty secret about The Black Keys: They come on tough, but they're sensitive souls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "DEAD AND GONE")

AUERBACH: (Singing) Alone. Why are you waiting so long? And every single word is said. I'm feeling dead and gone. Alone. Don't you drag me along. If you do you know I'll follow you until the truth is gone. I'll go anywhere you go, oh, oh, oh. I'll go anywhere you go, oh, oh, oh. All the way. All the way.

TUCKER: On that song, "Dead and Gone," Auerbach delivers a series of assertions, each of which at first seems to offer the sentiments of the singer, only to be revealed as the words of the lover who's rejecting him. Don't call me, I'll call you, he says, then adds, is what you say. Then comes the kicker rhyme: I'll obey. One thing the Keys learned from the blues is that supplication can be a beautiful thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LITTLE BLACK SUBMARINES")

AUERBACH: (Singing) Little black submarines. Operator, please put me back on the line. Told my girl I'd be back. Operator, please, this is wrecking my mind. Oh, can it be? The voices calling me, they get lost and out of time. I should have seen it glow but everybody knows that a broken heart is blind. That a broken heart is blind.

TUCKER: "Little Black Submarines" suggests the stylistic tugs and pulls The Black Keys' are feeling these days. It begins with a pretty acoustic melody that I just played. There's a description of a guy who's been separated from the woman he loves until, about two minutes in, the song takes on a new, louder urgency.

The increasing desperation to avoid the broken heart he's singing about is mirrored by a shift in the music, which becomes louder, more vehement, more hard-rock in music terms, and in emotional terms more desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LITTLE BLACK SUBMARINES")

AUERBACH: (Singing) Treasure maps for me, please, Operator. Please call me back when it's time. Stolen friends and disease. Operator, please, pass me back to my mind.

TUCKER: "El Camino" was co-produced by The Black Keys and Brian Burton, who produces and performs under the name Danger Mouse. Together, they do a good job of turning The Black Keys into a number of things, including an up-to-date version of ZZ Top, heavy on relentless blues-guitar riffs placed within the catchy choruses of a pop song. You can almost hear The Black Keys' beards growing as they boogie through the ZZ Top-ish tune "Run Right Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "RUN RIGHT BACK")

AUERBACH: (Singing) Before she hits the ground she's going to want to explore. Got to step aside. Never run and hide. She holds it all above us, that pretty head of hers. Oh, it comes screaming out in an electric shout. She's the worst thing I've been addicted to. Oh, oh. Oh, no. Oh, no. I run right back, run right back to her. I'm going to jump the track. I run right back, I'm sure, I run right back to her.

TUCKER: The Black Keys are both in their early 30s; moving from their native Akron, Ohio, to Nashville to make their seventh studio album, they've achieved a sound that's frequently brighter, more open and eager, less closed-in or doomstruck.

They may sing about being perpetually disappointed in either their own behavior or that of the objects of their affection, but the guitar and drums tell a different story. "El Camino" turns out to really be their revved-up getaway car after all. They've moved from state to state, on the run to reinvent themselves. It sounds as though they've gotten away with their sly plan.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the Black Keys' new album "El Camino." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: