With their brand-new El Camino, Nashville residents The Black Keys move in a different direction, but keep their record-nerd fans 

The Road

The Road

"I don't think we're doing any promo [copies]," says Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney in regard to the Keys' seventh studio LP, El Camino. "I think that they actually made, like, 50 watermarks just for labels to have and for our manager to have, but they gave me one of them. I gave it back to them within an hour, because the first hour I had it someone wanted to take it and make copies. And I'm really bad at saying no to friends, so I figured I would rather just not have the option."

By the time you read this, El Camino will have been out for at least two days. But as of early November — when the Scene spoke with Carney via telephone — The Black Keys' reps were keeping an uncommonly tight lid on the record. While journalists were being granted preview listens, in some cases — or at least in the Scene's case — said preview listens were one-time-only, from-within-the-manager's-office affairs. A relatively uncommon practice within the music industry.

But you know what else is fairly uncommon within the music industry? Selling records. According to Nielsen SoundScan, The Black Keys sold more vinyl albums in 2010 than any artist other than The Beatles — even so, they were only 700 units behind The Fab Four, and a whopping 5,000-plus ahead of third-placers Radiohead. True, even though last year's Brothers sold a grand total of 800,000 copies, and even though they recently announced their first-ever arena-headling tour (set for this spring), that still doesn't quite put the Keys in the same multi-million-unit ballpark as commercial rock leviathans like fellow Nashvillians and Keys cohorts Kings of Leon. But the Kings didn't place in the Top 10 of vinyl album sales in 2010, even with the release of their Come Around Sundown that year.

You see, more units — that's albums and tracks — are moved digitally than in any physical medium. And when people do purchase albums physically — though they're not doing so in the same droves they did in the '90s — they mostly purchase CDs, and they mostly do so at big-box retailers like Walmart and Target. But vinyl remains the medium of choice for many serious collectors and audiophiles. And when those serious collectors purchase vinyl from new artists, they mostly purchase albums by artists like The Black Keys — mostly rock bands, and mostly bands that are at once both accessibly catchy and heavily influenced by rock 'n' roll, pop and blues greats of yesteryear.

"But the thing is, it's not the idea of, like, stealing music," says Carney, alluding to digital album leaks and further elaborating on why El Camino was under such tight wraps before its release. "It's the idea of, like, when we put out the 'Lonely Boy' single like two-and-a-half weeks ago, it was the first time since [2003's] Thickfreakness that we released a song and were able to have it premiere around the world at the exact same time. It was actually kind of nice for us. And you just lose that excitement, you know?"

Even in the wake of their recent Grammy wins — Best Alternative Music Album for 2010's Brothers and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal for that album's "Tighten Up" — Carney and frontman Dan Auerbach retain an excitement about their work. It's that excitement that Carney referred to — an earnest zeal that can only come from a group of people who built their careers upon painstakingly and lovingly crafting songs in basements and warehouses and, eventually, their very own studios — that resounds with people who collect records and listen to them carefully.

So what of the music itself? Do the songs on El Camino hold up to the standards that vinyl enthusiasts, rockists and respecters of the retro have placed upon The Black Keys? In a word, yes.

El Camino — which, Carney admits, was jovially named after Cheverolet's somehow innately funny no-longer-in-production utility coupe — is their most up-tempo record to date. The album opens with the bombastic "Lonely Boy" and powers blazingly through mean, fluid, buzzing tones and relentlessly up-tempo punk-rock beats. It isn't until the album's fourth track, "Little Black Submarines," that the sonic onslaught subsides — and even then, only for a moment. "Submarines" is a pensive, blues-folk jaunt that begins with Auerbach's vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitar — until, at the two-minute mark, a gritty, Petty-esque, distorted riff kicks in and Carney lays into the brass.

Save the occasional riff here and there, Camino never really returns to the bluesy roots that gave the Keys their identity on releases like Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory, Magic Potion or even — to some extent — Brothers. It's urgent, dark pop, peppered with gang vocals, big guitar and organ sounds, and Carney hammering away at his kick pedal on nearly every quarter note. As Carney explains it, he, Auerbach and longtime producer/collaborator Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton were trying to construct songs that more closely resemble The Black Keys' live show: insistent, fast and at least a little bit off the rails. It's a step in a different direction, but it's a direction that likely won't upset the audiophiles and vinyl enthusiasts who make up the most zealous portion of the Keys' base. These are still the same brothers as before. Now, there's just more folks listening.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.


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