Most bands screw up because their records sound like work. The music is efficiently made and extremely well-engineered but basically dull because it's all craft - well-intentioned craft and no soul. When an album offers little or no proof that something might happen - that wonderful, delicious creative air of danger, or a sense that things could fall apart at any moment - there's little reason to care.
The Black Keys, on the other hand, give you thousands of reasons to care, and they do so in ways that are magical, invisible, but oh so human. Sure, they craft their material, but not so you'd notice. They seem to rush into their music and inhabit it. Each song is a total happening, a rush of colliding emotions threatening to explode the framework, and that is very exciting, indeed.
Because they operate as a duo - Dan Auerbach on guitars/vocals and Patrick Carney on drums - The Black Keys have been forced to make their limitations work for them, and they succeed brilliantly on the just-released El Camino, in which they're teamed with longtime producer Danger Mouse.
Since 2008's Attack & Release, The Black Keys have been gradually stripping away at what began as a twisted, garage-y, blues-influenced sound and have transformed themselves, for now anyway, into a sleek rock machine, one that's built for speed. El Camino is a rarity in music: it delivers the instant gratification of fast food but none of the fat, no excess. Everything is lean, baby. The hooks come fast, the glammy-fuzz riffs are a-plenty, the choruses slam - you're in and you're out, and you're happy.
It could have been a disaster - a sly, calculated bid for arena-rock status (and the Keys will be playing those very venues in short order) - but Auerbach and Carney have such a damn good time making this glorious racket, and they find pockets of gold every which way but loose, that you're swept up in their frenzied distillation of musical idioms. El Camino, like the title suggests, is a rush. Too bad it doesn't come on eight-track tape with a pair of fuzzy dice.