Often I'll be peripherally aware of a band before I give them a proper listen. I may catch their songs in the background, or hear their name mentioned by friends — in the case of The Black Keys, multiply the amount of these instances by 50. Last month, I had the great fortune of seeing them perform with Arctic Monkeys at the Oracle Arena on my birthday. The effect of seeing and hearing them live was explosive — in one night, this band moved from my periphery to a firm front-and-center. So I did the sensible thing: I played The Big Come Up and kept listening straight through to El Camino.
Strange thing was, at first, song after song all sounded very much the same. Stranger still … I actually kinda liked it. I, who have championed originality and variety (White Cloud) something fierce, I ended up really digging these gentlemen who had somehow turned musical repetition into an art form and, dare I say, a virtue. Of course, they achieve this by firmly planting their musical identity into the rich soil of blues rock.
With little exception, I feel that their first five albums mash together into a massive ball of grit, strut, pain and pure blues rock power. Yes, there are standouts from this generalization: the wacky samples in The Big Come Up, the gentler moments in Attack & Release, and the more interesting covers (“Act Nice and Gentle” or “She Said, She Said”). But if you're searching for basic blues rock, you've hit bedrock: safe but effective drumming, strong but steady guitar, vocals with that scratchy passion which you got a dime a dozen back in the '90s, and lyrics that literally give us nothing we haven't seen before. With blues, even blues rock, this is no fault: it's tradition, the heart, soul, bread, butter, meat and bones of blues.
And then there was Brothers.
Did anyone see Brothers coming? I doubt it, because “pop blues” didn't really exist as a genre beforehand — at least not so prominently. Henceforth, however, Brothers shall be the template itself: poppier than, say, Buddy Guy or B.B. King, but more focused and streamlined than, oh, The Rolling Stones.
Grandiose comparisons? Hardly: after the hypnotic effect of interchangeable albums, we get all these new elements that all somehow work. Falsetto in “Everlasting Light,” backup echoes in “Next Girl,” and of course the iconic whistling, and rhythmic change-up, of “Tighten Up.” Especially sweet is the instrumental “Black Mud,” but then, I've always admired rock groups like R.E.M. or Radiohead who have the nonchalance to throw an instrumental track on an LP. To top it all, the album's music videos are a hoot, with their spontaneous fight scenes and hilarious lip-synching (speaking of R.E.M.).
And then El Camino happened.
I'll just say it. Didn't love it. My beef with El Camino is its oxymoronic vice: the boys (The Black Keys and Danger Mouse) have produced an album that is distinct from their repetitive catchy discography, but now their new sound is repetitive, just within the album! So much of El Camino is rhythmically identical, with the exception of “Little Black Submarines” … until it switches from cooing acoustic to that same identical pop rock rhythm.
Maybe it's crazy, but doesn't the album cover hint to this? The CD gatefold is a string of dull-colored vehicles in equally washed-out settings, again and again and again. Nothing like the arresting imagery of Thickfreakness or the luscious Faberge-freaking-egg on Magic Potion — and correspondingly, the predecessors of El Camino had a lot more “come hither” to their music. Meanwhile, take a look at the cover of Brothers — clever, distinct, straight to the point. Oh, look at that, the music matches the album cover, that's pretty neato.
Is Danger Mouse to blame? That's a hard question, due in part to my immense love for the man. Brian Burton is a talented and experienced team player, but I find his collaborations mightiest when he's producing for musicians that don't have a distinct sound. Put him with Gorillaz, you get a sophomore success; pair him with Cee Lo Green, and they debut with summertime pop brilliance; get him in a room with MF DOOM, and they give you a timeless, geeky, Adult Swim-themed classic. His mere association with The Good, the Bad and the Queen glorifies him in my book. On the flip side, Broken Bells failed to impress because James Mercer already has a distinct sound. Ditto for each and every vocalist on the overcrowded Dark Night of the Soul – even David Lynch has a musical identity already.
Danger Mouse producing The Black Keys defeats both of their purposes — the band's too stripped-down for the producer, the producer's too inventive for the band. He produced for them before: Attack & Release, which is as forgettable as El Camino, but at least isn't as regrettable as El Camino.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney can lay down amazing sounds, whether in a garage or at the heart of the Oracle Arena. Hell, Carney did the production by himself on those first few albums — you know, the amazing, identity-defining ones. They don't need a mastermind's guidance — just plug in the guitar, tamp down the drums, and leave them alone to work their magic.