The Black Keys have always had a little Bad Company in them, even back when they were jamming on Junior Kimbrough songs in small clubs. All it took to expose the band’s arena-rock side was a series of actual arena gigs, which finally happened with 2010’s Brothers, one of the few rock records of the 21st century to get within spitting status of platinum status. El Camino is the first Black Keys record made for the band’s newly expanded audience, and it’s been properly fine-tuned for maximum impact amid massive crowds.
Frequent collaborator Danger Mouse is back as producer after overseeing Brothers’ breakout hit “Tighten Up” and 2008’s transitional LP Attack And Release, the record that first nudged the Black Keys in a poppier, less blooze-centric direction. El Camino distills the previous two records’ approach down to 38 minutes of lean, mean, consistently catchy riffs and big, chant-worthy choruses. The rock-star confidence is palpable in “Money Maker,” which blows out the band’s usual soulful rock with a wrecking-ball beat. “Hell Of A Season” dabbles in post-punk crunch and slippery reggae shuffles, but otherwise, El Camino resides in a comfort zone of classic-rock worship: The power-pop nugget “Nova Baby” takes a page from Cheap Trick’s late-’70s playbook, and “Gold On The Ceiling” powers forward like ZZ Top with a T. Rex engine.
If El Camino fails to produce a hit on par with “Tighten Up,” it won’t be for lack of trying. “Lonely Boy” and “Stop Stop” are instantly likeable pop songs that should fit comfortably between Foo Fighters and Kings Of Leon tracks on the local rock radio station. El Camino is so relentlessly crowd-pleasing that it feels a bit inconsequential; there’s no room for the sad, sludgy ballads that used to anchor Black Keys albums in the band’s new, sugar-heavy music. But when times are as good as they are El Camino, the blues can wait for another day.