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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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Culturespill’s Plea to Electric Six: Ease the Seat Back!

29th March

E6

 

In light of troubling news that Electric Six has has hit the studio to record their fifth album in as many years, we at Culturespill thought we’d pose a question their most recent album begs us to ask: what’s the rush, dude? The uncharacteristically boring I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Becoming the Master, out last year from Metropolis Records, made an even more convincing case than its timid predecessor (Switzerland, 2006) for the need to, as Dick Valentine might put it, “ease the seat back.”

It would seem that Valentine, the band’s brainchild, agrees. “Our feet hurt. We need to soak our feet in salt water,” he confessed on the band’s website earlier this year, “We have to address our pediatric issues first and then we’ll worry about the release date of our next record on Metropolis Records. We have begun recording though. It has already begun.” OK–funny funny ha-ha. But as reviews of their latest–and easily their most forgettable–album indicate, a nice warm epsom bath and a cool year off might not be such a bad idea.

Just a few short years ago, we didn’t hesitate for a second before calling E6 the best band currently walking the face of the Earth. There was a ferocious abandon about the band’s debut, Fire–how its stinging combo-pack of punk, disco, arena rock and grade-school sex puns so wholly dismantled the cliches of ’70s rock excess that you loathed yourself for ever pondering that Styx album in your iPod. Even the deeply flawed follow-up, Senor Smoke, which was released in England long before it hit American stores due to distribution snags, evinced a sporadic brilliance that kindled widely-held hopes that the band would find a way back to the addictive blaze and boom of their debut.

It was hardly surprising that E6 had trouble finding Senor a distributor in America, where people no longer distinguish between music and bull piss because FM radio continues to force-feed them overproduced treacle that is about as memorable as a slice of processed cheese. It was equally unsurprising that such tepid reviews welcomed the album upon its release, as Fire was so brilliant, fearless and new that Senor Smoke sounded worse than it actually was.

Most rags in England, where the band scored dance-floor hits with “Gay Bar” and “Fire in the Disco,” trashed the album unmercifully because Valentine danced on Freddy Mercury’s grave during a video for a lame cover of “Radio Ga Ga.” Whatever. The song sucked then and it sucks now, and if E6 intended to prove this with their cover, they succeeded brilliantly. And anyway, Valentine concedes that he only included the cover on Senor Smoke to appease the demands of tasteless roadies who heard the band perform it one time. Like the band itself, it was probably meant as an absurd joke that went horribly wrong.

E6 Video: “Danger! High Voltage”

But that’s exactly the point: there was a time when the bad joke that is Electric Six sounded so right. “Devil Nights,” “Rock N’ Roll Evacuation,” “Dance Epidemic” and “Boy or Girl” were unmistakable E6 gems worth the price of the album alone. And then there’s the hideous “dance moves” Valentine employs on stage—especially those sloppy, half-naked push-ups he performs about 7 beers into every setlist. “I do sit-ups, too,” Valentine told Crave in an interview last year, “but nobody wants to talk about those.” Damn right, Dick. I’m sorry, but there’s something about a guy named Dick doing naked calisthenics for public audiences that’s deeply unsettling. But that’s the whole point with these guys; trauma is their currency. Well, it was.

If Senor Smoke as a whole was a damned mess—and it was—the band did have their excuses: record company strife, the loss of E6’s original lineup, and external pressures such as (“Oh, man! Radio Ga Ga! You gotta put that one on there, dude!”) that all came together at the same time to condemn the album to hopeless oblivion. It’s a testament to Valentine’s fortitude that he even scraped enough tunes together to put out a product that at least resembled an E6 LP.

When Switzerland was recorded so quickly on the heels of Senor Smoke–the chaos that distracted those sessions replaced by a combination of urgency and liberty that might have been the stuff of the next great E6 LP–the watery turd they served up as a finished product gave fans as much pause as it should have given the band. Then came that Exterminate Everything blah blah blah stuff, and suddenly each successive E6 album began to feel like the continuation of some agonizingly prolonged gesture of farewell.

Those who, like yours truly, cling to the band for echoes of the Fire-era E6 in pursuit of further elaboration on Valentine’s three favorite subjects–fire, nuclear war, and gay bars–are treated instead to an evolving aesthetic that’s shocking in its self-importance, given the band’s devotion to self-deprecating absurdity. “When you have a couple hits, people automatically assume that just because you have one song, you can’t write any other sort of song,” Valentine whined in another interview last fall, “Like clearly, based on hearing ‘Danger! High Voltage,’ this band is not capable of doing anything but ‘High Voltage.’ Like right out of the gate. ‘Based on this one song, this band will never, ever have another song besides this song.'” Boo-hoo.

There comes a time when every self-confessed “bar-band”–as Valentine himself describes his crew–must decide whether they will continue to be who they are or become “artists.” As so many bands who’ve gone the “artist” route in the past have proven–The Red Hot Chili Peppers come to mind–it might make you more popular at the local wheat-grass bar, but it isn’t worth a drink of water on the dance floor.

Few acts are capable of delivering the narcotic and unthinking thrill of rock and roll with more abandon or abundance than E6. There is nothing shallow about looking to them for something other than the sober lectures of a Billy Brag album. Sometimes it’s OK for a band to have fun and for fans to go looking for it; but with each increasing album and interview, it sounds like the same guys who waged “nuclear war on the dance floor” in 2003 are more likely to wage war on their fans in 2008.