Akron, Ohio indie-blues band The Black Keys are at a crossroads. It's a story as old as indie rock itself: respected underground group releases a critically-acclaimed album (2010's Grammy-winning "Brothers") that gets a wee-bit more mainstream attention than usual and the group's early fans immediately abandon ship. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney had better get themselves ready for their "Nevermind" moment. You heard it here first, folks. "El Camino" is the best record of 2011.
The idea of transcending a fan-base isn't new. It's happened to Nirvana, R.E.M., The White Stripes, even Modest Mouse. Sometimes an album just demands to be huge. "El Camino" is exactly that album. Lead single "Lonely Boy" starts off as an unassuming garage rock pastiche, until about 20 seconds in when Auerbach wails, "I've got a love that keeps me waiting." It's an impossibly big sound for a two piece band, and it just keeps getting bigger.
"Nova Baby" is another standout. Somehow, the song is reminiscent of both Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. All 38 minutes of this album are incredible, perhaps none more so than the 3 minutes of "Run Right Back", the natural follow-up hit to 2010's "Tighten Up". Danger Mouse produced that "Brothers" track, and it's worth noting that he produced the entirety of "El Camino". His wild pop sheen can be heard everywhere on the record, but it's never intrusive or unwelcome.
The Black Keys have been teasing this album for a few weeks now, releasing a song or two a week to their website. Every new song is accompanied by cries of "Sellout!" and "This is too mainstream!" in the comments section. It seems a little silly to talk about music that way in the digital age, a time when almost nobody is selling records in significant numbers.
In 1991, the world's most independent of independent bands, Fugazi, released their seminal album "Repeater". That record sold 250,000 copies in its first week. In today's music world, that's a top-ten record, if not a number one. Back then it was only good enough for #158. Blaming a band for making a few bucks by placing one of their songs in a sitcom isn't fair anymore. These people have to eat. Here's hoping that the 11 songs that make up "El Camino" are used in every single car commercial aired next year. They deserve every penny they can squeeze out of it.