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New Black Keys album falls just short of hitting right notes

“El Camino,” the new album from The Black Keys, holds no surprises, for better and for worse, and it’s hard not to point out the tincture of overproduction that seems to create a discrepancy in what ought to be the inherent nature of blues.

“Lonely Boy,” the album’s first single and probably its “roughest” track, has this plural guitar sound that’s a clear distinction from the sole, one-guitar power that used to be provided by singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. The chorus is backed with, well, a chorus of voices. It’s neat, I suppose, but Auerbach used to be the battery of the duo, providing that jazzy yet growling voice backed with a full guitar sound that was playing rhythm and lead without recording two tracks.

Auerbach still shows off his bluesy swagger, and the introduction of “Gold on the Ceiling” is reflective of this. But then it dives into this peculiar, full-band swing, backed with an obscure organ sound. “Sister” reprises this incompatible sound. It’s yearning for less. I take issue with “Dead and Gone” much to the same degree. “Hell of a Season” is promising initially, but it then takes a turn south with some instrumental exploration. It seems that The Black Keys are making sounds with instruments foreign to the typical just to make those sounds.

I am a fan of “Little Black Submarine.” It’s still a bit crisp for my Black Keys tastes, but there’s an actual sense of catharsis radiating from the track, even if Auerbach will clearly need a second guitarist to perform the song live. The fun quality of The Black Keys’ first albums resurfaces slightly on this one.

The album’s closer, “Mind Eraser,” is fitting as an ending in its lyricism (Auerbach croons, supported by a choir yet again, “Don’t let it be over” at the song’s end) but fails to be a standout finale. The song is overridden with the same traces of overproduction like the rest of the album.

“El Camino” proves that The Black Keys’ sound is not tired and the band still enjoys making the same type of music. Nonetheless, the album is flawed just because it has “too much” going on for it. Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney already had a huge sound when they first started recording as The Black Keys, and it never had to be bolstered by anything but Auerbach and Carney.

Grade: B

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