- - Monday, December 5, 2011

El Camino

The Black Keys

Nonesuch

★★★★

Before 2010, the Black Keys were the exclusive province of record store employees and college radio DJs, championed as blues-rock gods by a handful of hip devotees but unknown to pretty much everyone else.

“Brothers” was the album that changed everything, thanks to an arsenal of retro-chic rock songs that managed to draw a line between the 1960s - specifically that decade’s roster of garage-rock, Motown and soul artists - and the modern era. It won three Grammy Awards, earned the band a high-profile spot on “Saturday Night Live” and eventually became the best-selling alternative album of 2010. The Black Keys, like Kings of Leon before them, had transformed themselves from underground semi-stars into rock ‘n’ roll titans.

Commercial success doesn’t always bode well for a band that spent its first decade out of the spotlight, earning the equivalent of a millionaire’s salary in artistic credibility but barely taking home a dime of actual money. Kings of Leon hit the jackpot with 2008’s “Only By the Night,” only to struggle with the notion that pop radio stations - the very same stations whose soulless, sugary playlists led the Kings to form a rebellious rock ‘n’ roll band in the first place - were now playing “Use Somebody” every half hour. The band wound up releasing a lackluster follow-up record and publicly imploding during the subsequent tour.

The Black Keys, on the other hand, have never sounded as convincing as they do on their seventh album. “El Camino” picks up where “Brothers” left off, grafting vintage sounds onto a hip, contemporary base. This is a modern-rock record, much in the same way that White Stripes’ albums are modern-rock records, but it looks to the 1960s and 1970s for most of its cues.

“Stop Stop,” with its falsetto refrain and hand claps, sweeps forward like a Phil Spector song, while “Gold on the Ceiling” anchors itself in glam-rock territory, emphasizing dirty guitar riffs and supersized drum fills. “Little Black Submarines” even ventures into Led Zeppelin territory with a minor-key guitar arpeggio straight out of the Jimmy Page songbook.

Even at their most retro-sounding, the Black Keys make sure to reinterpret their influences, not mimic them. Some of the drum patterns are indebted to hip-hop, a genre that emerged long after glam rock’s heyday, and Danger Mouse produces the album with a modern touch.

“El Camino” is the rare record that rocks and rolls in equal measure, too, meaning those who don’t care to headbang may find themselves dancing like the man in the “Lonely Boy” video.

Lioness: Hidden Treasures

Amy Winehouse

Universal Republic

★★

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