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>Rock

The Black Keys

El Camino

[Nonesuch]

3 stars (out of 4)

Following the runaway success of last year's awesomely scuzzy "Brothers," and a lengthy tour that found the band moving up the rock 'n' roll ladder a few rungs -- from clubs to small arenas -- the Black Keys come back with "El Camino," the duo's first release as a "mainstream" success. Surely, this spells trouble for a certain segment of the band's fan base, folks who confuse lack of money, time and experience with romanticized notions of authenticity. This happens so often in the world of indie and alternative rock -- where early records made with zero budget are revered with the mistaken notion that this is what this band will always be about.

In truth, most musicians want their records to sound strong, want to become more skilled in the art of writing songs, want to experiment, want to avoid falling into formulaic traps. It's only certain parts of the audience who want to freeze a band in time -- right at the moment when they fell in love with them, and felt that, somehow, this band was their's.

"Brothers" pushed the Black Keys into the broader world, though. And in that broader world, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney doesn't sound so much like an underground garage-rock duo. "El Camino" is a very strong rock record with no apparent problem embracing the concept of the catchy chorus hook. It's far less of a fuzz-blues rifforama than "Brothers" is. It's a little bit better produced, a bit more polished, and at roughly 40 minutes, entirely fat-free.

At heart, though, it's still a Black Keys record -- a soulful blend of post-garage guitar sounds, primal drumming, sinister funk-blues-R&B underpinnings and darkly sexy grooves.

Opening with the T Rex-like slam of "Lonely Boy," "El Camino" burns rubber from the get-go, as Auerbach and Carney take readily apparent delight in creating a mash-up between "Tons Of Sobs"-era Free and the White Stripes' "Elephant." One would have to be mildly delusional to deny the primal force of this tune, even if producer Danger Mouse has taken a bit of the creepy Bayou sleaze of "Brothers" out of the mix.

"Little Black Submarines" pares back the cacophony to allow Auerbach a nice acoustic blues intro, before the wall of riff-rock collapses around the listener's ears with considerable force. This is an instant classic, but really, only the most devout indie rocker would be able to ignore the fact that it doesn't sound all that far removed from, say, Bad Company's "Wild Fire Woman" or something off the Black Crowes' "Amorica" album. Which is only a problem for the listener who arbitrarily equates musical growth with selling out.

The Black Keys I witnessed in concert at a small club in Cleveland nearly a decade back simply did not pack this kind of musical muscle. Sure, the duo was a little wilder, a little weirder and a lot more rough around the edges. But the songs? Unquestionably, the ones collected on "El Camino" are stronger.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Rock

Nickelback

Here and Now

[Roadrunner]

1 stars

You'd think that folks out partying at a football game would be Nickelback's base, in a nutshell. The mega-platinum Canadian quartet makes cliche-ridden, post-grunge, mainstream hard rock for folks who find the much more complex Metallica to be too much effort.

As given ample evidence by the band's new stink-bomb, "Here and Now," singer Chad Kroeger likes to sing about "everyman" things -- drinking ("Bottoms Up"), sex ("Midnight Queen"), getting mad ("This Means War") and going to the football game on Sunday to drink and, hopefully later, have sex ("Don't Ever Let It End"). It's populist music composed with the assumption that the population is comprised solely of meat-heads.

And yet, "the Base" rebelled against the band recently, petitioning the Detroit Lions to prevent Nickelback from performing at the Thanksgiving day NFL game. Brilliant!

So who loves Nickelback? Clearly, someone does. Whoever they are, "Here and Now" is for them. Everyone else should avoid it like the plague.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Jazz

Brad Mehldau Trio

The Art of the Trio -- Recordings 1996-2001

[Nonesuch, seven discs]

3 1/2 stars

Brad Mehldau was a huge shock to the jazz system.

It wasn't merely that he was such an exceptional jazz trio pianist in the Herbie Hancock/ Keith Jarrett mode, it's that he was even more thoughtful and intellectually articulate about it than Jarrett. When the excellent annotator of this set, Ethan Iverson, tells you that the first volume in Mehldau's magnificent "Art of the Trio" series features music that sounds "like '60s innovations of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock filtered through the sensibility of Rilke and Goethe," you're strongly advised not to doubt it for a second. (Iverson is also an annotator who can quote -- with total aptness -- from Charles Rosen's book "The Romantic Generation." In his notes to Vol. 5 of the series, Mehldau quotes Isaiah Berlin: "'Morality' he writes, 'and politics, so far as it is a social morality -- is a creative process. The new romantic model is art.' ")

To say that this was a jazz pianist that not everyone felt comfortable with is bland understatement. There was always much speculation about the degree to which Mehldau's seriousness and intellectually rich (perhaps singular) background intruded on the beauty and joy and power and authority of the music itself.

How could music of such intellectual authority be as sensual and pleasurable and ecstatic as great jazz piano trio music had traditionally been?

Just as John Lewis, once upon a time, had supplemented all the seriousness in the world with heavenly blues playing and melody, Mehldau was always a trio jazz pianist of formidable swing and intuition and grace, working with authentically great trio musicians.

What he -- and everyone else -- knew with Mehldau's trio is that his bassist Larry Grenadier and his Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy were the next logical step in jazz piano trio sublimity after Bill Evans with Eddie Gomez and Paul Motian and Keith Jarrett with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.

Iverson's notes are good, all of Mehldau's original notes are included, and the music -- with a whole extra disc of music unreleased -- is some of the great jazz pianism of its time (and remains all of that a decade later). It was the announcement that Mehldau, now 41, was a whole new generation of piano wonder in jazz. One of the great box sets of the season.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Pop

Scott Weiland

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

[Softdrive Records]

2 1/2 stars

This disc is a curiosity. People are fighting about it on Amazon. Some love it, some hate it. One fan writes: "Half of it is crap, but half isn't too bad." What this is all about: Weiland, of the Stone Temple Pilots, who has long struggled with the wassail (and worse) here dons a jacket and tie and moves into the domain of Bing Crosby.

"A Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" come off surprisingly well, but "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "White Christmas" have a strained, sinister vocal quality. A Weiland original, "Happy Christmas and many more," could use more melody but it's cute. A New Orleans-ish, bopping "Silent Night" has won praise on the Internet. "O Holy Night" gets a weird, wild treatment -- you would almost think he was mocking the song. Except I don't think he is. Awful as this album is, it is noble in its awfulness, because I get the impression it is sincere. You sort of have to hand it to Weiland, putting himself out there like this. A Merry Christmas to you, sir.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman