The Black Keys have come quite a ways in the decade since their debut, The Big Come Up.
Plenty of local music lovers recall seeing Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney honing their big backbeat-driven, fuzzed-up blues-rock stomp in the old Lime Spider or the tiny tavern at the Beachland. Perhaps you joined the party after their very popular third album Rubber Factory (2004) and caught the band in the big room at the Agora or at Nautica Pavilion (or whatever it's called this month).
With each album and tour, the band's profile has steadily risen. Auerbach and Carney have graced many magazine covers, made numerous television appearances and garnered smart song placement in films and commercials (the 21st-century equivalent of strong radio airplay) and catchy singles. The musicians have grown from being two nice boys from Akron making bluesy indie rock to Grammy-winning stars whose albums debut in the Billboard Top 5 and who receive praise and requests to collaborate from legends such as Robert Plant and Rod Stewart.
But a sure sign that the band has made the actual "big come up" is that the next time the Black Keys grace a Northeast Ohio stage it will be headlining Quicken Loans Arena on March 20.
The latest steppingstone is the band's seventh full-length album, El Camino, hitting digital and analog store shelves on Tuesday. The release comes just a few days after the Black Keys' second appearance on Saturday Night Live of 2011 (the first nonhosting band to play twice in a single year) and just before bookings on The Colbert Report and the late-night talk shows. On Wednesday, the band received its sixth Grammy nomination, best pop duo or group performance for its cover of Buddy Holly's Dearest, from the covers compilation album Rave On Buddy Holly; it already has won three.
Their sixth album, Brothers, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in May 2010, went gold in several countries and made many year-end best-of lists. That leaves only one spot for improvement, and with all the goodness that's happened in the past two years, expectations for El Camino's chart fortunes could cause a bit of apprehension, but Carney said getting the album out was more important than grabbing the top spot.
"I don't think we'd be disappointed [if the album doesn't chart higher than Brothers]. I'm sure Michael Buble or someone will outsell us," he said from the band's Nashville base a few hours before heading to New York for SNL and other promotional appearances. "We knew that choosing the week that we did, we probably wouldn't chart as high as last time, because there is so much traffic."
There was talk among the band and its label Nonesuch of waiting until January when the number of new releases would be a bit less congested, but giving fans a chance to absorb the album was more important than topping the charts for a week or two.
"We knew we were going to start touring in mid-January and we wanted everybody to already know the songs," he said.
Fans will undoubtedly know them because El Camino is quite simply one catchy-as-hell earworm, a focused stab at making a contemporary classic-rock record. The record clocks in at a classic-rock length of 11 songs in just under 38 minutes with no fat or filler, songs with choruses that should have most fans humming the melodies before the song ends and the next earworm tune begins burrowing into their brains.
And, yes, the album is called El Camino but features a photo of a beatdown Dodge Caravan on the cover, drawing a healthy number of puzzled blog and forum posts from American fans.
"That's the reaction we were going for," Carney said of the visual switcheroo/joke, designed as all of their albums have been by Carney's Grammy-winning art designer brother Michael Carney. "It didn't work in Europe because they don't know what an El Camino is over there, so it made perfect sense to them."
The album's lead single and viral video Lonely Boy pretty much encapsulates the tone and tenor of El Camino, with its thumping Gary Glitter/glam rock-inspired beat, melodically rocking riff, and vocals from a female trio of Nashville background singers found by Auerbach who further inflate the arena-ready choruses heard throughout the album. Carney mostly eschews his patented heavy-handed, drum-head-shattering, half-time thump for more uptempo, straightforward rock grooves that push rather than lope.
Songs such as Sister, with its simple, near-disco groove, the straight four/four beat of Run Right Back, the '90s college rock sound of Hell of a Season, and Nova Baby, which sports yet another ridiculously catchy hook harking back to '60s girl groups, all further expand the band's familiar sonic palette.
The blues is still the base of many of Auerbach's riffs, but he also lets his inner guitar hero out a few times, including a blistering lead on Little Black Submarines. He's still mostly singing about women and affairs of the heart: women he wants (Dead and Gone), women he doesn't want anymore (Sister), women he can't rid himself of (the familiar-sounding closer Mind Eraser).
For El Camino, the duo re-enlisted eclectic producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), who worked with the band on 2008's Attack & Release and the Grammy-winning single Tighten Up from Brothers, to not only co-produce El Camino but to co-write it in Nashville at Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio (Carney said Auerbach created a "Ponzi scheme" for the band to pay for studio time). Working as a songwriting trio altered their usual process of jamming/shaping an Auerbach riff into a song, then finding words from his voluminous lyric book that fit the groove.
"We wanted to do Brothers without (Danger Mouse) but for one song, and I think we wanted to pick up where Brothers left off," he said. Tighten Up was the last song finished for that album.
"Most songs start with Dan and I just screwing around with guitar and drums, and if we came across something all three of us liked, we'd start building on it ... For every song, everybody had an equal say in every part of the song," Carney said.
Carney used Lonely Boy as an example of the trio's writing and recording process, with Auerbach coming up with the shuffle-snare beat, all three hammering out the chorus's melody and Carney providing the hook's "whoa-ooh-whoa-ohs."
"So, Brian was not just writing but also editing and helping us pick the best things, and we kind of made a relatively poppy album for the Black Keys because there were so many ideas being thrown around that we had the ability to kind of sift out the best ones," he said.
The band wanted to make a more uptempo record (i.e. few songs have that half-time stomp groove) and figured out after a few songs that they were producing a new record with many classic elements.
"It was starting to become a type of album we never made before, which is kind of a classic late 1970s rock 'n' roll, early alternative rock or post-punk," Carney said.
"Those kind of albums where you want to put it on and it kind of keeps the same feeling throughout the album but doesn't get boring or sound too samey," he said.
Mission accomplished. El Camino may not debut at the top of the charts but it is sure to linger. Once songs start turning up in commercials, films and television shows (Lonely Boy was used in the Comedy Central series Workaholics a few days after its official release), the album has a good chance of outshining its predecessor commercially while still making critics' and bloggers' best-of lists and selling out arenas.
It's been a long haul for the Black Keys, from their start in a small smelly van as a two-man operation to an entourage that now includes several trucks, lighting rigs, extra musicians and bona-fide hit songs.
Longtime local fans might never have another chance to see the band in a small club again (secret rooftop gig at the Lockview, anyone?), but with the big modern classic pop-rock sound of El Camino, the band should remain quite visible for years to come.