The Black Keys: El Camino – [Record 43]
El Camino: is the seventh studio album by American rock band The Black Keys. It was co-produced by Danger Mouse and the group, and was released on December 6, 2011 on Nonesuch Records. The follow-up to the band’s 2010 commercial breakthrough, Brothers, El Camino was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at Easy Eye Sound Studio, which was opened in 2010 by guitarist Dan Auerbach. The record draws from popular genres of the 1950s–1970s, such as rock and roll, glam rock, rockabilly, surf rock and soul. The band cited several retro acts as musical influences, including The Clash, The Cramps, T. Rex, Ramones, The Beatles, Sweet, The Cars and Johnny Burnette. Based on the difficulty the group had performing some of Brothers’ slower songs live, it conceived more uptempo tracks for El Camino. Danger Mouse contributed as a co-writer on each of the 11 songs.
“Lonely Boy” was released in October as the lead single, accompanied by a popular one-shot music video of a man dancing. The song became the group’s highest-charting single in several countries, including the United States, Australia, and Canada. A faux newspaper advertisement and parody car commercial advertising an old van as an “El Camino” were used to promote the record prior to release. The album received positive reviews from critics and was ranked by many publications as one of the best albums of the year. In the US, it debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and sold 206,000 copies in its first week, the highest charting position and single-week sales the group has achieved in the country. The Black Keys supported the album with the El Camino Tour, their first headlining arena tour. Three additional singles were released, including “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Little Black Submarines”, which were rock radio successes. At the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, El Camino won the award for Best Rock Album, while “Lonely Boy” received honours for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
Record One. Side One.
1. Lonely Boy.
2. Dead and Gone.
3. Gold on the Ceiling.
Record One. Side Two.
4. Little Black Submarines.
5. Money Maker.
6. Run Right Back.
Record Two. Side One.
8. Hell of a Season.
9. Stop Stop.
Record Two. Side Two.
10. Nova Baby.
11. Mind Eraser.
Background: Through the first eight years of their career, The Black Keys built an underground fanbase through frequent album releases and near-constant touring of small clubs, but mainstream success eluded them. After the release of their critically acclaimed sixth studio album, Brothers, in May 2010, the group experienced a commercial breakthrough. The single “Tighten Up” was a sleeper hit on radio, eventually spending 10 weeks at number one on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in the United States and becoming their first song to enter the Billboard Hot 100. The album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 1.5 million copies worldwide, including 870,000 copies in the US. The band also gained additional exposure by continuing to license their songs in popular media, so much so that they were Warner Bros. Records’ most-licensed band of the year. Spin named The Black Keys the “Artist of the Year” for 2010, and in January 2011, they appeared as the musical guest on American television sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. At the 53rd Grammy Awards in February 2011, the band won awards for Best Alternative Music Album (for Brothers) and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (for “Tighten Up”).
The band’s sudden success proved overwhelming, as they found themselves booking additional promotional commitments and facing demand for additional touring dates. In January 2011, the group canceled concerts in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, citing exhaustion, thus clearing out most of their touring schedule into April. Drummer Patrick Carney said, “We’ve been touring long enough to know when we’re about to hit our breaking point.” The desire to record another album soon after Brothers also led to the decision. Carney said, “We could have waited another year or so, and milked the Brothers album and kept touring, but we like bands, and our favourite bands growing up and even today, are bands that put out a lot of music and every album is different from the last.”
Recording and production: El Camino was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at Easy Eye Sound Studio, which was opened by guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach in mid-2010 after he relocated from the group’s longtime hometown of Akron, Ohio. Carney spoke of how the success of Brothers impacted the follow-up record: “For me, there were physical jitters about everything that was going on. Seeing how big the shows were getting, feeling like people were paying attention, kind of made me anxious, and I think that’s part of the reason [El Camino’s] songs are so fast. I think we wanted to just muscle through it.” Despite the growing expectations of the band, Carney said that the El Camino recording sessions were much more relaxed than those for Brothers, when he had been dealing with his divorce.
The band hired Danger Mouse to co-produce the record with them, based on their experience with him producing their 2008 album Attack & Release and the single “Tighten Up”. Danger Mouse served as co-writer for all of the songs on El Camino. Speaking of their willingness to involve him in the songwriting process, Carney said, “It took us a long time to be able to trust somebody like that, and not be arrogant little kids about it.” Auerbach said, “It was difficult at times. Some days it worked great. Some days it was just infuriating. You gotta lose any kind of insecurity. It was a totally different way of thinking for me.”
Recording for El Camino began on March 3, 2011. In contrast to their previous records, The Black Keys entered the studio for their new album without having developed any new material. Each day, the band began from scratch and in Auerbach’s words, “brainstormed until we had songs”. The material was then refined over several days, and after arrangements were agreed upon, the group quickly finished recording the songs, often in just one or two takes. “Dead and Gone” was the first track completed. For the first time, the band deliberated over the musical details of each song. Auerbach said, “we were getting into the nuances of each song by asking ourselves, ‘How long should this intro be? How long should the pre-chorus be? Should there even be a pre-chorus?’ We were playing with tempos and BPMs, seeing how a vocal hook does or doesn’t work at a faster speed. And usually, we went with the faster option.” Differing from the band’s lyrics-first approach on Brothers, the lyrics for El Camino were written after the music, often being improvised at the microphone. Auerbach said, “the words had to fit in this pre-existing space. It was really confining and totally different from anything I’d done before.” The band focused on the vocal melodies more so than the lyrics—Auerbach admitted that lyrically, “None of these songs really have any meaning.”
The group wrote the new songs while continuing to tour for Brothers, but the hectic concert schedule resulted in them splitting time between touring and recording, forcing them to travel back and forth between their shows and Easy Eye Sound Studio. The sessions for El Camino lasted through May 26, 2011, and overall, the band spent 41 days recording, the longest time spent on any of their albums. They recorded using a Quad-8 mixing console that was first installed in Nashville’s Creative Workshop studio in 1969 and later bought by Auerbach from a man in North Carolina. During the sessions, the band listened to playback of their progress on a speaker they purchased from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio after the last day of recording Brothers. The bathroom of Easy Eye Sound Studios served as an echo chamber for recording vocals and handclaps. Mixing and mastering were completed in mid-June.
Composition: El Camino follows The Black Keys’ garage rock formula but places less emphasis on blues than the group’s previous records. The album instead draws more influence from other popular genres from the 1950s–1970s, including rock and roll, glam rock, rockabilly, surf rock and soul. Carney explained the album’s direction, “After the first three or four songs were recorded, it kind of became apparent that they’re all rooted in this early rock and roll feel. It was around that time that we decided to make a whole album that was built around that.” The band cited several retro acts as musical influences on the album, including The Clash, The Cramps, T. Rex, Ramones, The Beatles, Sweet, The Cars and Johnny Burnette. Following the sonic expansion on their previous two albums, Attack & Release and Brothers, for El Camino they sought to strip-down their sound by writing an album of “efficient rock-and-roll songs and minimal instrumentation”
In contrast to some of the slower, quieter tracks from Brothers, the songs on El Camino are more uptempo and riff-driven. During the tour for Brothers, The Black Keys realised that many of that album’s songs were too slow to translate to a live setting, which led them to write more uptempo material for El Camino. Carney said, “This record stemmed from that, the fact that it’s easier for our songs to come across well live if they are fast. So we were just trying to make a guitar rock album that was more upbeat than anything we’ve ever recorded”. Realising halfway through the recording sessions that all the songs they had written to that point were uptempo, the group decided to maintain the faster pace as a common thread throughout their new material.
Packaging and title: The album was named after the Chevrolet El Camino, a coupé utility car. The inspiration came from the band sighting an El Camino while on tour in Canada in 2010; Carney admitted that the title was selected “as a joke”. “El camino” is Spanish for “the road” or “the path”. The band found out the phrase’s meaning after selecting it as an album title, and they joked about the record taking on deeper meaning afterwards. Andy Gill of The Independent said of the title, “it’s a nod to the pilgrimage of dues-paying, the months of one-night-stands in tiny Midwest towns which hone raw talent into rock’n’roll gold.” Michael Carney, the duo’s art director and Patrick’s brother, was initially hesitant about the title. Patrick recounted the conversation with his brother about selecting the title and artwork:
I told my brother the idea and my brother was like, “You know, if you name the record El Camino, everybody’s going to think of the car the El Camino.” And I was like, “Yeah exactly. That’s the fucking point!” And he was like, “OK, but why don’t we just put a car on the cover that’s not an El Camino?” And I said, “OK, what kind of car?” He says, “Just put the first car you guys ever toured in on the cover.”
The vehicle in the cover image is a Plymouth Grand Voyager similar to the navy blue one that the group toured in for the first year and a half of their career. Commenting on the puzzled reaction the group received to putting an image of a used van on the cover of an album named for a muscle car, Michael said, “That’s the reaction we were going for. It didn’t work in Europe because they don’t know what an El Camino is over there, so it made perfect sense to [Americans].” Patrick compared the appearance of Akron to the cover image, calling his hometown “A busted up parking lot with a busted up car.” The interior sleeve booklet for the album features images of various vans from Akron, Ohio, including those produced under the brands Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, and Dodge. Each copy of the album bears a sticker on the exterior that says “Play loud”.
Promotion: Prior to the release of El Camino, promotional copies were limited to a small pressing of just 50, given mostly to music labels and The Black Keys’ manager. Preview listens for journalists were strictly controlled to only one-time listens and they were held within the duo’s manager’s office, an uncommon practice within the music industry. The group opted to withhold the record from music streaming services, citing financial reasons. Patrick Carney said that streaming services are not yet “at a point where you’re able to replace royalties from record sales with the royalties from streams. For a band that makes a living selling music, it’s not at a point where it’s feasible for us.” As is common practice for the band, several songs from the album were licensed for use in popular media, including ESPN’s Band of the Month for December, Lifetime’s TV drama Army Wives, and the PlayStation 3 video game MLB 12: The Show. The group noted though that they were planning to reduce the amount of licensing in comparison to previous records to avoid overexposure. Carney said, “When no one’s buying your records, it’s easy to justify selling a song. But once you start selling records, you can’t really justify having two songs in Cadillac commercials. It looks greedy.”
According to Michael Carney, the promotional strategy for the album embraces “the spirit of doing it the wrong way”. Warner Bros. Records COO Livia Tortella elaborated that “They’ve latched onto that idea at a time when the real spirit of alternative has, in many ways, gone away from our music. The spirit of rock should be that: outside of the norm, not just mainstream and predictable.” The music video for their lead single “Lonely Boy” was supposed to be multifaceted and employ a big budget, but the group decided instead to make it a one-shot video consisting solely of footage of an extra, actor and part-time security guard Derrick Tuggle, dancing. The video went viral, garnering more than 400,000 views on YouTube in 24 hours. On October 9, 2011, the band placed an ad in the Akron Beacon Journal advertising their used tour van as a “1994 El Camino” for sale. The ad read, “1994 El Camino: 273,000 mi. 200 cubic-in. 3.3L 95hp V-6 engine, 3-speed turbo autom shift, sapphire stylus, some ticks/pops, light surface noise. Working AM/FM radio, tan metalflake/woodie panels, some rust. Black vinyl seats. Priced to sell – Grab the Keys and go! Contact Pat or Dan at (330) 510-1206.” The phone number in the ad led to a recorded message of Patrick Carney describing the car and asking for the caller to leave a message. The band launched the promotional website WannaBuyAVan.com with a video parodying a low-budget used car commercial for the same van. Actor/comedian Bob Odenkirk plays the salesman in the video trying to pass off the van as an El Camino.
The album’s release date of December 6, 2011 contrasts with the conventional record release strategy within the music industry. Carney said, “There’s a rule you release albums in February–March, then you tour the summer. Then there’s the September–October schedule. Our new album is out on December 6. I asked the label for a list of major rock bands that had released albums in December. In the last 10 years there’s maybe four. But our manager said it’s a shame more bands don’t, ‘cos it would force the industry not to shut down.” The group had intended to release El Camino in September but decided to push it until December to allow for a three-month break. Ultimately, they booked this free time up with additional concerts and a promotional tour.
A week prior to the release date, the duo decided to stream five tracks from the album on their website after it leaked online. The Black Keys appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on December 3, 2011 for the second time that year, and they performed “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling”. Two days later, the group held an album release concert at Webster Hall in New York City that was streamed live on MTVHive.com. The group made several appearances on late-night talk shows, including Late Show with David Letterman and The Colbert Report, as well as at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards. The group was the subject of a cover story for the January 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone; in a widely publicized quote, Carney criticized Canadian rock band Nickelback, saying that “rock and roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world”.
Singles: “Lonely Boy” was released as the album’s lead single on October 26, 2011 and became one of the group’s most successful singles. It topped several rock radio charts, including the Alternative Songs and Rock Songs charts in the US, and the Alternative Rock and Active Rock charts in Canada. On the singles charts, “Lonely Boy” was the group’s highest-charting song in several countries, peaking at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 2 on the Australian Singles Chart, and number 33 on the Canadian Hot 100. “Lonely Boy” was certified nine-times platinum in Canada, triple-platinum in Australia, platinum in New Zealand, and gold in Denmark. “Gold on the Ceiling” was released as the album’s second single, and like its predecessor, it topped the US Alternative Songs chart and the Canadian Alternative Rock and Active Rock charts. On the singles charts, the song reached number 94 on the Hot 100, number 34 on the Australian Singles Chart, and number 51 on the Canadian Hot 100. The song was certified platinum in Australia and Canada. “Dead and Gone” was released as a third single in Europe. “Little Black Submarines” was released as the record’s fourth single on October 8, 2012.
Critical reaction: El Camino received positive reviews from music critics. According to review aggregator website Metacritic, the album received an average review score of 84/100 based on 37 reviews, indicating “Universal acclaim”. Spin gave the record an 8/10 rating, calling it “irresistibly gaudy” and “catchier, glitzier, ballsier”. The reviewer said the songs contain “classic cock-rock sonic tchotchkes: handclaps, talk-box guitar breaks, rainbow keyboards. The overall effect is something akin to ZZ Top with glitter in their beards.” Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly gave the record an “A–”, writing that the group “make a small-room racket that sounds massive enough for a bigger-is-better world”. Maerz said that “El Camino trades the soulful stylings of Brothers for harder-driving, faster-riffing rock & roll”. James Lachno of The Daily Telegraph rated the album four-stars-out-of-five, praising Danger Mouse for “sharpen[ing] up the sweet, melodic choruses that offset the duo’s unholy racket” and give each song a “timeless quality, as suited to a Seventies mid-west saloon as a students’ indie disco”. Despite what Lachno judged to be “tawdry” lyrics, he said that “the Black Keys are here to rock, not talk. On this evidence, few bands right now do it better.” Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times assigned the album a maximum four-star rating, calling it “butt-shaking music” and “an album with lyrics that are both unpretentious and un-dumb”. Roberts praised the nostalgic elements of the group’s music and said that the album “scratches an itch you didn’t even know you had”.
Michael Hann of The Guardian gave the record a maximum rating of five stars, writing that it is “dripping with an easy, attractive confidence”. Commenting on the various musical influences on the album, Hann said, “they stride fearlessly into areas that might once have been off-limits”. His review concluded, “They sound like a band who think they’ve made the year’s best rock’n’roll album, probably because that’s exactly what they’ve done.” Rob Harvilla of Pitchfork Media scored El Camino a 7.4/10 and called it “their best and (not coincidentally) goofiest album”. Describing the music, he said, “The riffs are glam-nasty, the lyrics sublimely knuckleheaded, the basslines nimble and bombastic, the mood frivolous and fun and unabashedly corny.” Will Hermes of Rolling Stone rated the album four stars and called it their “grandest pop gesture yet, augmenting dark-hearted fuzz blasts with sleekly sexy choruses and Seventies-glam flair”. AllMusic writer Stephen Thomas Erlewine rated the album four-and-a-half stars and said, “More than any other Black Keys album, El Camino is an outright party, playing like a collection of 11 lost 45 singles, each one having a bigger beat or dirtier hook than the previous side.” Kitty Empire of The Observer was more critical of the album; in a three-star review, Empire commented that it sounded like Danger Mouse “tightened up the Black Keys’ act rather than loosened it” and that “El Camino may be fast and fun, but it is also somewhat undemanding.” The reviewer noted that the album had “increased vigour”, but that it came at the expense of “the subtleties that made Brothers such an intriguing ride.”
Commercial performance: In the US, El Camino debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and sold 206,000 copies in its first week on sale. This marks the highest album charting position and single-week sales the group has achieved in the country. In Canada, the album debuted at number three on the Canadian Albums Chart and sold 27,000 copies in its first week. In its first two weeks on sale, El Camino sold nearly 293,000 copies in the US The album has been certified double-platinum in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; platinum in the U.S., United Kingdom, and Ireland; and gold in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. As of January 2013, the album has sold 1.1 million copies overall in North America.
Accolades: El Camino appeared on several end-of-year rankings by music publications and critics. Rolling Stone ranked it as the 12th-best album of 2011. Spin placed it at number 36 on its list of the 50 best albums of the year, writing, “Glam-blooze guitar, poppy melodies, and hockey-rink keyboards fit the Keys like vintage denim.” Paste ranked the record as the 22nd-best of the year before it had been released. Claire Suddath of Time magazine and Andrew Leahey of The Washington Times both named El Camino one of the Top 10 Albums of 2011, while the staff of AllMusic selected the album as one of their favorites of the year. The album placed 21st on the “Best Albums” list from The Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. In end-of-year polls, writers for Rolling Stone selected “Little Black Submarines” as the 18th-best song of 2011. while the publication’s readers voted “Lonely Boy” the year’s third-best song. Despite being released in 2011, El Camino was ranked by Mojo as the sixth-best album of 2012
At the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, The Black Keys won the award for Best Rock Album for El Camino, and Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song for “Lonely Boy”. Auerbach was honored as Producer of the Year, Non-Classical for co-producing El Camino and producing records by Hacienda and Dr. John. The Black Keys also received nominations for Album of the Year for El Camino and Record of the Year for “Lonely Boy”.