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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “El Camino,” The Black Keys

16th December

By the time “Gold on the Ceiling” blasts you with a bruising nod to glam so worthy of Suzie Quatro or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie you can just see Dan Auerbach plant his tongue in his cheek as he plays, you’ve survived the convulsing adrenaline of “Lonely Boy” and the sonically massive “Dead and Gone.” It is clear by then that this is not the Black Keys from that copy of Thickfreakness you wore out back in college. Hell, it isn’t even the Keys you adjusted to on 2008’s Attack & Release, the duo’s first foray with ubiquitous producer Danger Mouse after a rudderless album in 2006’s Magic Potion.

With the exception of stunners like “You’re the One,Potion felt like the work of a band that had turned to the well of their revival rock often enough to come up dry the fourth time around. And though Attack’s more ambitious vision elicited huffs from pseudo-hipster snots who pledged their allegiance to the guys that covered The Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” eight years ago, it also was the work of a band that had discovered a side of their muse no one saw coming.

Tracks like “I Got Mine” rocked with all the blistering abandon longtime fans expected before a psychedelic interlude turned the song into a vague echo of something from one of Rhino’s mid-60s Nuggets box sets. “Psychotic Girl” laid some wicked banjo over a beat that had more in common with Portishead than pot heads, while “So He Won’t Break” joined the Ventures with the clanging glory of Tom Waits’s Frank’s Wild Years as Auerbach delivered the most stirring vocal performance of his life. The dreamy, wistful ballad “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” remains possibly the finest moment the band has put to tape and sounded like exactly nothing from prior entries in the Keys’ catalog.

El Camino, like its gloriously funkadelic predecessor Brothers, continues the Keys’ Danger Mouse experiment, but the record that emerged this time around puts its finger on an irony no band is better suited to exploit. This is a daring record not because it departs from the rock ‘ roll conventions these guys plumbed on prior albums—garage rock, blues, classic rock, psychedelia—but because it embraces those conventions more fully than ever before and without the slightest trace of shame or reservation.

“Lonely Boy’s” syrupy eruption of chintz and frat-house boogie makes it clear from the start that this will be the record the Keys have wanted to record since the day they stumbled on their parents’ LP collection but never quite found the daring to make. While the layered, half-acoustic half-garage-jam freak-out “Little Black Submarines” flaunts the duo’s affection for those Zeppelin and Tom Petty records they hummed in their sleep as kids, Pitchfork’s assertion that the song lifts “wholesale” the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is far-fetched (See RHCP’s “Dani California” for a much more obvious example of wholesale burglary). “Dead and Gone’s” guitar solo sports all the spit and gritted teeth Auerbach bared on records like Rubber Factory, but here it’s all cloaked in the more considered orchestrations Danger Mouse brings to the mix.

Yes, it’s a more polished and poppy sound, but how boring to let those misgivings get in the way of the truckload of fun this album dumps on your doorstep. That’s the line these songs draw in the mud: Either you’re willing to take yourself a little less seriously and bring a bottle of Quervo to the 11-track party these guys throw on El Camino, or you’re one of the too-cool pseudo-hipsters who can’t let go. The Keys make no apologies here to those who showed up for their shows eight years ago just because it was the hippest place to be seen at the time.

And if you thought six albums of songs full of bitter ruminations on love and loss might have been enough to smudge the hurt out of Auerbach’s heart, do not fear. Here he comes again with lines like “Your momma kept you but your daddy left you / and I should have done you the same,” or “She’s the worst thing / I’ve been addicted to / still I run right back / run right back to her.” Oh, Dan . . .

It takes an oddly cold fish to resist this record. From the aforementioned tracks to the snarling drums with which Patrick Carney buttresses Auerbach’s nasty slide guitar on “Run Right Back” through the meaty, muscular riff on “Mind Eraser,” El Camino boasts the spirit and the substance that great rock ‘n roll is made of.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Beck: Modern Guilt

28th June

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On Monday, June 9th, Beck decided to do what he always does in advance of a new album: hit the stage at the Echo in L.A. and play some crazy shit no one’s ever heard before. He continues to refer to these outings as “surprise” shows, but how much of the element of surprise Beck’s able to retain after pulling off the same thing nearly every year is probably up for debate. At this point, it’s about as surprising as that unspeakably hideous tie you gave your father this past Father’s Day (you know who you are.) In any event, Beck & Co. delivered the usual reworkings of older material–the culprit this time being tunes like Sea Change’s “Lost Cause,” dressing the song in what Stereogum calls “a My Bloody Valentin-ey fuzzed-up” sound. But the thing that made this latest “surprise” gig particularly remarkable was that Beck used it to unveil a new album which, as bits and pieces trickle down to youtube, myspace and iLike, sounds more and more like the next great Beck album: the Danger-Mouse produced Modern Guilt (out July 8th, his 38th birthday–yes, beck is 38. I know, I know. Guzzle down some Prozac with your coffee this morning and try to think about something else.)

Looking a lot like the exiled leader of some “back to the land” Hippie cult in the Santa Cruz mountains where the wife bakes loaves of macrobiotic bread inside the family tent as he guides the children through prayers to Demeter in the hope of a bountiful harvest, all Beck needed to complete a triumphant return to the original sin of rock ‘n roll that night was a dashiki, a flower in his hair, and a smoking fatty lodged in the head of his guitar . It’s easy to dismiss the whole get-up merely as Beck being the freaky mofo that he is, but when you listen to what’s available of the as-yet unreleased album on his MySpace Page, you quickly realize that there’s a reason he’s passing himself off as the ghost of Skip Spence these days (he did, after all, contribute a track to a Skip Spence tribute album back in ’99.)


Beck at the Echo: “Modern Guilt,” June 9th, 2008

Chemtrails,”one of the few tracks Beck’s teased the public with in advance of the album’s release, opens with Beck’s eerie whisper accompanied only by the hauntingly psychedelic siren of a keyboard before the whole song bursts into a funked-up shuffle of percussion and piano that exemplifies exactly the kind of aesthetic restraint we’d expect of a Danger Mouse production (an aesthetic he delivered with astonishing power on The Black Keys’ recent Attack and Release.) In a creative flourish that’s at once predictable and stirring, the whole thing is then thrown down the winding stairs of Beck’s imagination with an amped-up crescendo that is equal parts space-rock and funk, the musical equivalent of dinner at Neil Young’s house with Pink Floyd, Prince and the full line-up of Crazy Horse. It may well be the most interesting piece of music Beck’s produced since “Loser.”

Beck’s early work is brilliant because it documented the arrival of a relentless creative anxiety that had been absent from music since Elvis Costello put out My Aim is True in ’77. No one was making the kind of sound he served up with Odelay in 1996, but plenty followed suit, and that succession of imitators sent Beck on a prolonged and fascinating pursuit of another sound to call his own. never has that journey sounded so complete as it does now, as tracks like the great “Gamma Ray” reach for where he’s been as much as they arrive at where he wants to be. Like a gypsy who’s roamed the world for decades with a laundry bag of all he’s picked up along the way slung over his shoulder, “Gamma Ray” synthesizes every creative detour of Beck’s recording career, from Odelay’s “Devil’s Haircut” to that bizarre cover he did for a tribute album in the name of the aforementioned Skip Spence.


Beck’s Modern Guilt: A Preview

Modern Guilt is not so much a new album as it is a catalog of every album Beck’s ever done. It is “new” in the sense that these songs shadow every corner of Beck’s creative vision at once rather than lingering over a single passing indulgence, as steeped in the folkish flare of Mutations or Sea Change as it is in the sonic massiveness of Odelay or Midnite Vultures. The occasionally unlistenable eccentricities of The Information–a fascinating if unfocused project–are reigned in but never abandoned on Modern Guilt, a kind of grounded madness that may have made for Beck’s most accessible album in 12 years.

The Heavy: “Making Noise While You Make Love”

18th May

The Heavy

Major Culturespill props are due to StellaSplice for tipping all of us off on a band they call “incredibly digable.” We completely agree. The Heavy, a funky, put-on-your-assless-purple-leather-Prince-pants-and-get-down outfit out of the UK, is easily making some of the most boogie-worthy music this side of the moon. But you probably haven’t heard any of it yet, and that’s about to end right now. Cluttering the kitchen sink of Parliament-worthy funk with a bulging load of every genre under the sun–Motown, hip-hop, rock, pop, soul, industrial, folk and–who knows–maybe Polka and Carnival music are on the horizon too–their myspace page identifies them as everything from “Black metal” to “Easy Listening” to “Italian Pop.” That pretty much leaves it all out on the table. And to top things off, you can watch them blast some Remington 1100’s into a row of unassuming water bottles here. Yippie.

The world hasn’t heard music with this much groove since RHCP lured George Clinton into a studio to lay down some tracks with them on their underappreciated Freaky Styley album 23 years ago–you know, back before the Peppers became “arteests.” As the funktastic “That Kind of Man” explodes with a relentlessly massive sound that brings to mind some dude straight out of the late 1970s with a mile-high afro and an early boombox half his size clutched to one ear as he struts right by you up the block, it becomes clear that The Heavy aren’t taking shit from anybody. That’s probably why they include “big bad wolves just doing what they do” among their band members on MySpace. There really isn’t a more accurate description of their sound than that. These boys (and one girl–clutching an axe with a murderous stare on their myspace page, no less) are here for the long haul.


The Heavy: “That Kind of Man”

The Heavy’s sound is Tom Waits backed by The Stooges, Muddy Waters back from the Dead to make an album with Danger Mouse (because Danger Mouse SO needs another project on his hands.) These guys are bringing taste back in a big damned hurry, and judging from the friends they keep on MySpace, it’s hard to conceive of a more fitting band to do it–The Sonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Tom Waits, and even Waits’s label Anti. These people know a good groove when they hear one, and they’re threatening to bring plenty more of their own for good measure. Check ‘em out.