It was a risky move considering the backlash that followed “Attack & Release,” the Keys’ 2008 album that many accused Burton of overproducing. I personally found his finer touches (like the banjo and piano-plinking on the drawly “Psychotic Girl”) more dramatic and fun, a refreshing departure from the rust belt-blues shtick they’d worked from the early to mid-2000s on excellent rock records like “Thickfreakness” and “Rubber Factory.”
“El Camino” sounds like somebody convinced Burton to throw his tie out the window and embrace the campy bombast of “Brothers,” the band’s commercial breakthrough (they nabbed a Grammy and have recently announced a string of convention-center/arena dates).
That over-the-top silliness comes through on “El Camino” — much differently than “Brothers,” however, mostly in big-time lyrical hooks (see the ineffable charisma of “Gold on the Ceiling” and album opener “Lonely Boy”) and the absolute biggest-sounding, arena-ready blasts of prog-rock riffage Dan Auerbach’s guitar has ever produced.
Carney’s drum pounding is distinct, too, crashing through on the climax of “Little Black Submarines,” filling in the gaps left by Auerbach’s primal guitar solos. In the past, he’s been happily willing to create steady-handed (and still awesome) propulsive forces for songs like “Brothers” and “Howlin’ for You,” so it’s good to hear him flexing a bit of his well-developed rhythmic muscle.
“Nova Baby” is a weird little standout near the end of “El Camino”; it’d qualify as a synth-pop song if it weren’t for the guitar riff that’s competing for sonic real estate. I think it helped me to realize that I’m not especially wild about that synthesizer when it’s not helping the band to sound like it’s scoring some demented, three-ring circus.
With a lot of the early-2000s blues-influenced rock bands now either defunct (The White Stripes) or out of the critical spotlight (The Strokes), The Black Keys appear to be poised for a lucrative, exciting 2012. And I appear to be poised to embarrass myself pretending to play air-guitar solos on my home from work this afternoon.