The Black Keys, “El Camino” (Nonesuch)
There’s a moment at the end of “Sister” — a fairly unremarkable track on the Black Keys’ latest full-length, “El Camino” — that fully captures what the alt-rock band is doing in this latest (and biggest) stage of their career.
At the song’s end, drummer Patrick Carney and singer- guitarist Dan Auerbach find a relaxed groove until the jam comes to an abrupt ending. Most other bands reach that point in the recording studio — having just taped a solid take and not wanting to muck it up — and will hold it still and revel in the silence, letting the tape roll until the engineer says, “OK, we got it.”
But not the Black Keys. Immediately after the song is over, Carney somewhat noisily couples his drum sticks and sets them on one of the drum heads.
Sure, the Black Keys have made their name and reputation on the fast-and-loose blues worship that made careers for the White Stripes and the Rolling Stones before them. But while this casual, in-studio inclusion sounds unrehearsed and off-the-cuff — perhaps a second-nature tick of Carney’s, something he does without thinking — its prominent appearance here is intentional.
It only takes a cursory glance at the Keys’ tour schedule in March — 15 dates, almost completely in full-size arenas — to see what’s happening. The Keys are blowing up, and they’re jumping on this moment to shine with the most accessible work of their career — a record that was produced by uber-tweaker Danger Mouse (along with the band).
A colleague called it “their Kings of Leon moment” earlier this week, and that could very well prove to be true. Will these indie rock heroes find themselves skipping the blogger-run recording sessions in favor of meetings with FM programmers? They’ve already appeared on “Saturday Night Live” twice this year, including their Dec. 2 appearance on the Steve Buscemi-hosted episode.
And is the disc creatively satisfying for the longtime fans? It has its moments.
The frailty of Auerbach’s falsetto on “Stop Stop” is a nice, wide-open moment. “Hell of a Season” has a way of sweeping you into its seductive groove. And the imperfect guitar tones of album-opener “Lonely Boy” is proof that these guys aren’t going the full-on polished-for-FM route.
Mind you, they’re ready for their close-up, as these slick, pop-rooted R&B songs suggest. But even after a move to Nashville — home to Jack White, mind you — these are still the minimalists that won us over with their greasy production, stripped-down instrumentation and impassioned vocals so many years ago.
The more important point here: “El Camino” will bring the Black Keys many, many more fans than they’ve ever had. And while they’ve tweaked their authenticity in a crowd-pleasing direction, they’re still deserving of a much larger audience. Ricardo Baca