The Black Keys: El Camino (Nonesuch)

After the ear-opening artistic breakthrough of Attack and Release (2008) and last year's commercial success with the Grammy-winning Brothers, it wouldn't have been surprising if this primal-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, had slumped and slacked a bit. Ain't gonna happen: Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach seem to be pushing the envelope more than ever on this, their sterling seventh album.

Produced by Danger Mouse (returning after guiding the band on Attack and Release), El Camino finds Carney and Auerbach coaxing their gritty blues-rock toward a more-soulful vein without abandoning their rock 'n' roll bedrock, which here tips its hat to Nuggets-era British acts. The big-beat "Dead and Gone" sounds like Philly soul played in the neighborhood garage, while "Money Maker" is a fuzzed-out R&B rave-up that, in a perfect situation, would have listeners strutting around living rooms and discos worldwide. "Stop Stop" could be a tune from a lost movie soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes with the addition of psychedelic electric guitars. And "Nova Baby" is a catchy strain of mod-soul.

But The Black Keys aren't content with one style. On this disc, several tunes offer grimy blues-glam-riffing, exercising a kind of a pre-punk formalism. And "Little Black Submarines" is simply amazing—it starts off sounding like an acoustic hippie-folk ballad à la Traffic, then transforms midway into a Led Zep-style stomp. For those who miss the intensity of The Black Keys' early albums, "Hell of a Season" re-creates the frenzied roots music for which the band has become known.

Sweet ride.

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