Today we have a special album review written by a member of our armed forces abroad. LT Sergio Martinez, a deployed U.S. Naval Aviator writing from Bahrain, reviews The Black Keys’ new album El Camino which was released today. LT Martinez breaks down each track on the new album while also providing a personal account of how music has affected his life even while defending our borders abroad. Read his review after jump!
(Special Guest review by LT Sergio Martinez, U.S. Naval Aviator writing from Bahrain.)
My taste as well as knowledge of music comes in waves. After college I moved to the southeast and started listening to country. My short stint as a jet pilot in training turned me on to more hard rock. The Black Keys’ single “Your Touch,” a discovery download from iTunes, went onto a mix CD containing various other groups and I quickly forgot the name of the band, though I listened to them every morning on my way to work. It would be years later when the song appeared on the Zombieland soundtrack before I became curious enough to figure out who this group is.
After I had my daughter and moved my family to Virginia Beach, I had a quarter-life crisis and tried to do activities that made me feel young again. I took up climbing, cycling, running, and took to listening to dubstep and other things deemed “cool” by the new generation’s standards. Of course these trends are just spikes in a constant and eclectic rotation occupied by comfortably familiar bands. After all, nothing makes you feel seventeen again like popping in a Weezer album and playing video games all afternoon. But every once in a while, I get the urge to grow, to find new inspiration, even if it is from generation’s passed. A couple of things have happened recently that have brought about my next wave. I came into possession of Keith Richards’ autobiography and realized that I do not have any albums by The Rolling Stones. Next I downloaded B.B. King, just because I’ve been putting it off for some time. I discovered that the blues, and blues-rock, something my high school guitar teacher tried to teach me for over two years, is really, really good. Rediscovering The Rolling Stones is something that I have been putting off for a decade now, it was overdue. I’m finding that for all the years I’ve been listening to heavily produced, overfinished studio LPs, there’s really nothing that gets me moving like a guitar and a high-gain amplifier. I learned that our parent’s generation of rock and roll is not something that is dead, but where new music is born.
The duo opens the album with their first single, “Lonely Boy,” a hard-hitting, raw wave of garage band blues-rock, simply electric. By the end of the song you’ll be dancing like Mr. Derrick T. Tuggle too. (By the way, the music video is fascinating and beautiful in very hypnotizing way.) It’s nearly impossible to feel bad for this lonely boy with its upbeat tempo and catchy tune.
“Dead and Gone” is a dance hall hit, Patrick Carney’s drum beat infectious and unrelenting. A small guitar solo makes a cameo in an otherwise chord dominated song. It rolls abruptly into “Gold on the Ceiling,” by far my favorite song on the album. The simple guitar intro makes a short detour into verse before getting lost in its anthemic chorus. It struck me as very Tarantino-esque, and I can almost imagine the dark smoky roadhouse as a leggy twenty-something in jean shorts makes her way to the bar.
Dan Auerbach takes it down a notch and raises the folk-flag in “Little Black Submarines,” a tambourine-and-acoustic hymn that is reminiscent to “House of the Rising Sun.” Halfway through the song Carney trades in the tambourine for cymbals and Auerbach lays it on thick with the electric guitar, demonstrating his ability to play lead as well as rhythm in one of his few solos on the album. While quite good in its own right, even the slamming solo cannot lift the melancholic mood of the song, leaving a precipitous feeling in the air at its finale.
The duo pick it back up in “Money Maker,” a simple yet effective riff with an even simpler chorus. While elementary in its complexity and structure, it is striking in the same manner as motion picture soundtracks, catchy and complimenting when paired with the right situation. What this song lacks in complexity is made up for in the next song. “Run Right Back” is a layered rock ‘n’ roll hit, bringing an array of instruments and sounds to fill in the gaps. The slide guitar says “we appreciate our roots,” while the keyboard/synthesizer says “I hate dead space,” perhaps the influence of the band’s producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse. As one of the fastest tracks on El Camino, both Carney and Auerbach up the ante with what they have traditionally written. There is no knock-out punch, but a barrage of beats to pump this one up.
The duo brings the blues back in “Sister,” using tried and true blues structures with The Black Keys’ own signature flair. The treble guitar riff and high-gain keyboard are blended like an electric smoothie. The otherwise raw and unrefined blues beat is infused, almost imperceptibly, with a little high-tech produce. It took me a few listens before I even noticed it, and now I can’t not hear it. The electronic beat is mixed with Carney’s drumming, filling the space in between beats.
“Hell of a Season” brings the noise fast and furious like “Run Right Back,” offset by Auerbach’s smooth vocals. The producer’s hand is shown through the last few songs, and a little overproduced for my taste, but still maintaining that gritty sound, a mixture of old fashion blues-rock with new life. “Stop Stop” has that finished sound of the preceding song, though the tempo is slowed to a manageable jog. While they buy in a little to modern influences, The Black Keys retain their soul, uniquely analog in a new era of high-tech music. “Nova Baby” and “Mind Eraser” round off the album, finishing with classic Keys, bringing the rhythm piano back into the mix. The last solo is a simple single string walk down the fretboard, finishing with a strong chorus, “Whoa, don’t let it be over,” and you really wish it wasn’t.
Overall El Camino is ripe for commercial success. I think it is something that new and old fans alike will appreciate. While they play to their strengths, both Carney and Auerbach evolve as musicians and writers, pushing their limits and trying new things. It doesn’t sound like Brothers, but it is unmistakably The Black Keys. It certainly sounds bigger than a drummer-and-guitarist duo, and the real trick is going to see if they can pull it off in front of a live audience.
I would, in my expert opinion, give this album 4 stars. It is accessible enough to play on the hit radio stations and blockbuster soundtracks, classic enough to be a real keeper, cool enough to be accepted by today’s generation. Not a masterpiece but it ranks among the best of 2011. Its raw garage-rock style with modern influences will be sure to tickle your fancy in the gym, in the car, or at the club. You cannot help but get up and do the Tuggle with this record on. Whether you’re into The Rolling Stones or Danger Mouse, I think everyone will find something enjoyable about El Camino.
Special thanks to LT Martinez for contributing to RB. We truly appreciate all of your efforts abroad and your committment to protecting our country.