THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM album review

THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM

Nonesuch, 2021

Blues, Garage blues, rock

If I had to guess at the dialogue that happened between the members of The Black Keys over the past decade, based entirely on the albums that were released in that time, I think it would go something like this.

2011 – “Hey, these last two albums that we released (Brothers and El Camino) are totally different from all the work we did before, but people are really eating it up! Let’s stay on this path and keep experimenting and see what happens. I wonder if our fans dig psychedelic stuff?”

2014 – “Hmmm… the fans didn’t seem to like that psychedelic stuff too much (Turn Blue). Let’s finish out this tour and take a little break and focus on other things. Maybe when we come back together, we’ll have some good ideas.”

2019 – “Okay, we tried to recreate the magic of El Camino, but that clearly didn’t work (Let’s Rock). I think we need to reassess what this band was and is supposed to be. What if we just did what we used to do back in the beginning and just jam on some old Mississippi blues songs?”

Clearly, this is all speculation and fictional. I don’t know Dan Auerbach or Patrick Carney personally, nor do I have any connections to offer me any insight to the decisions that led to the creation of their newest album, Delta Kream. But, I don’t believe this is an entirely farfetched assumption when you look at the band’s release history. They have effectively come back around to the sounds and inspirations of their earlier material after a couple significant changes in sound and a couple disappointing albums.

Sorry for being “that guy,” but I was into The Black Keys before they were cool. My first introduction to them was their 2006 EP Chulahoma, a collection of songs originally recorded by Junior Kimbrough. It’s a very similar formula to Delta Kream, only now we’re getting more tracks from more artists like John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside. I will admit that when the band made its first major stylistic change on the album Brothers, I was a little disappointed that they moved away from their bluesier sound. But the album was so damn good that I didn’t care that much, and the same applies to El Camino. But with every album, I always wondered if they’d ever get back to their blues roots. Delta Kream is exactly that return. It’s the Chulahoma formula, but with some key differences.

Chulahoma was released while the band was still recording in basements and abandoned factories in Akron, Ohio. In the time since, Dan Auerbach has opened his own recording studio in Nashville, recreating vintage recording techniques and recording and producing for legendary blues musicians, bluegrass and country bands, and R&B singers. The recordings on Delta Kream still have some dusty vintage vibes to them, but layers of dirt and grime from their garage rock days are gone. This is evident on the album’s opener, John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake.” There are times in the chorus where Auerbach slurs the lyrics, but you feel like it might have been more effective if things were more lo-fi.

If you want to draw another comparison with their previous releases, the whole vibe of Delta Kream is pretty laid back. The old albums were pretty raucous affairs. Carney would pummel his drums, but that was probably necessary to give them any resemblance of definition and to keep from being swallowed by Auerbach’s fuzzy guitars. Now things feel far more restrained. It’s a similar story with the guitars; there are more solos and extended jams, but there’s just not as much energy behind it as there was back in the early ’00s. And you don’t have to wonder what an old Keys song would sound like with this new sound. They include an updated cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Do the Romp,” previously recorded as “Do the Rump” on their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. If you want a clear demonstration of the difference between old blues Black Keys and new blues Black Keys, just listen to those back-to-back.

I know it seems like I’m complaining a lot with these comparisons to their early albums, but it’s hard not to make them when the band is making such an obvious attempt to go back to their original inspirations. But at the end of the day, this is still a pretty good album. They very faithfully capture the vibe of the songs they’re covering and the jam sections are the slinkiest they’ve been since that Chulahoma EP I mentioned above. You can tell the guys are having a good time in the studio banter that’s included in some tracks, and if this album introduces a new generation to Mississippi blues music, I don’t see how that couldn’t be a good thing.

The album does have its issues, though. Some jams can feel a little drawn out and others end abruptly. Their cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” has some falsetto work from Auerbach that threatens to get annoying before the instrumental gets good. Other songs on the back half of the album don’t have real sticky hooks and can blend into the background. But the good still significantly outweighs the bad.

Delta Kream marks a welcome return to form for The Black Keys, not only in terms of style and genre, but in quality as well. I don’t know if this album represents a reset in the band’s career, but I hope that Auerbach and Carney have found the inspiration they went looking for. And I also hope that this means we’ll start consistently getting Black Keys albums of this quality or better again.

7/10

Sean’s Favorites: 2011

Well, I certainly took my time getting to this one. Before you get too far, you might want to go back and refresh your memory of my 2010 list. But anyway, in 2011 I finished my second year of college and left that school for a couple reasons (let’s just say I didn’t transition well to the college lifestyle). The Marvel Cinematic Universe began to truly take root with the release of the first Thor and Captain America movies, NASA flew the last Space Shuttle mission, and Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The role music played in my life was pretty similar to 2010. I was still listening and reading as much as I could. I continued to discover new things and dig deeper into genres I previously hadn’t explored. Here are some albums that have endured for me from that time.

Capitol

BEASTIE BOYS – HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO–4 years since their last album, 7 years since their last album with lyrics, and 13 years after their last great album (sorry to fans of To the 5 Boroughs), the Beastie Boys came back in the best possible way. They came back loud, funky, and ready to party. Hot Sauce fits nicely in the sound that the Beasties established through the ’90s with obscure samples, live instruments, synths, and punk rock attitude. Other Beastie Boy staples like instrumental funk tracks and the odd punk song are here too. This really was a return to form for the Beasties and it would become a fitting end to their discography. MCA sadly passed away from cancer in 2012 and Mike D and Ad-Rock announced that they would not make new music as the Beastie Boys a couple years later.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO–2010’s Brothers broke The Black Keys into the mainstream, then El Camino blasted them off the charts. The fuzzy guitars in the opening seconds of “Lonely Boy” tell you immediately that you’re not getting the slow-jamming R&B rock of Brothers. This is going to be a raucous, badass garage rock record, and you better buckle up. But the Keys haven’t forgotten their blues roots. “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Little Black Submarines” still have hints of their beloved delta blues. And later tracks like “Hell of a Season” and “Stop Stop” still pull from R&B. El Camino really is the total package and the crown jewel of the later half of The Black Keys catalog. They haven’t quite captured the same magic since.

Jagjaguwar

BON IVER – self titled–My ass was planted firmly on the indie folk bandwagon in the early 2010s. I had heard of Bon Iver, but my knowledge was limited to the song “Skinny Love,” I hadn’t heard the rest of the first album. When I saw that he had come out with a new album and it was getting very good reviews, I gave it a chance. I pressed play and was met with… not indie folk. I don’t really know how to categorize what I heard but it was beautiful and incredibly compelling. I put this album in my car stereo and it stayed there for months, despite not really being “driving music.” There are so many layers to uncover on this album. Even as I revisit it for this list, I’m hearing new things along with what made me love it in the first place.

Sensibility/Columbia

THE CIVIL WARS – BARTON HOLLOW–Sticking with the indie folk theme, The Civil Wars were one of many groups to emerge during the genre’s boom at the time. A collaboration between contemporary Christian singer Joy Williams and Americana singer-songwriter John Paul White, the band quickly proved they were not just another Mumford clone trying to capitalize on a trend. Their sound was much quieter (mostly), and their lyrics embodied feelings of longing and loss in ways that other songwriters only dream of. Barton Hollow itself plays almost like a timeline of a relationship with lighter songs leading to the explosive and raucous title track. The tone then turns to darker minor key songs and then ends with bittersweet goodbyes. Unfortunately we only got one other album from The Civil Wars before they called it quits, but they will be remembered as one of the better parts of the indie folk boom of the 2010s.

Samples & Seconds/Republic

GOTYE – MAKING MIRRORS–Yes, this is the “Somebody That I Used to Know” album, and that song is fantastic, but I think we can all agree that it was overplayed at the time. However, this album is so much more than that song. It’s track list has just one indie pop gem after another, some with hints of old school soul and R&B and even hints of Paul Simon. There is some art-pop weirdness here and there, but it’s way more accessible than it isn’t. I also feel like the fact that “Somebody…” became such a meme distracted from the strength of Gotye’s songwriting and his voice. You really should do yourself a favor and check out the rest of this album, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find. The only downside is this is the last thing that Gotye has really released. But I keep my fingers crossed in hopes of someday getting another album.

Universal

OWL CITY – ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL–I feel like I’m going to lose a lot of music fan cred by admitting that I like Owl City. Say all you want about how he’s a more sanitized, ultra twee version of The Postal Service, but if you follow Adam Young, you find out that he has a serious DIY attitude and he just does what he wants, and I respect that. All Things Bright and Beautiful was his second major label release and, to me, the best example of the Owl City brand of synth pop. The instrumentals are super clean and precise with intricate percussion tracks. These back catchy melodies and lyrics that are full of metaphor and beautiful language (that is, admittedly a little cheesy, but way less than some found on Ocean Eyes). I could go on for awhile on this one. Maybe I’ll do a full write-up for it someday.

Pure Noise

THE STORY SO FAR – UNDER SOIL AND DIRT–By 2011, the emo and pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and ’00s had either disbanded or were making radio rock and bland power pop. It was enough to keep the fans happy, but the world needed a new class of pop-punk to bring the energy back. The new decade brought that with bands like Fireworks, Man Overboard, Real Friends, The Wonder Years, and Handguns. One that quickly rose to the top was The Story So Far who kept the catchy pop hooks but brought back the harder edge of punk with more raw vocals and energy that would permeate through the entire scene over the next few years. 2011 was a good year for pop-punk, and Under Soil and Dirt was one of its best releases.

Hassle

TURBOWOLF – self titled–In the last entry of this series, I mentioned that The Sword left me hungry for more riff-heavy hard rock and metal, but I had a hard time finding it. However, I was lucky enough to find Turbowolf while I was stumbling about in the dark. But Turbowolf is not your typical stoner or doom metal band. They do have sludgy guitars, an occult aesthetic, and riffs for days, but they also have the attitude and occasional speed of punk, the atmosphere of psychedelic, and the weird synths of horror punk. Mix this all together and you get the tasty, hard rocking riff smoothie of their self titled debut.

Vulf

VULFPECK – MIT PECK–Somewhere in Michigan, a few friends decided that they were going to start a band that tried to capture the vibe and sound of old live rhythm sections like The Wrecking Crew or the Muscle Shoals band. Little did they know that they were about to create the minimalist funk powerhouse of the modern era known as Vulfpeck. Mit Peck was the first collection of tracks they released into the world, containing songs like “Beastly” and the band’s signature track, “It Gets Funkier.” With this EP, Vulfpeck introduced us to their brand of retro-styled funk and soul, but more importantly it introduced us to the bass playing of Joe Dart. (We’re not worthy!)

Sean’s Favorites: 2010

Let’s see, where was I in 2010? I turned 20 years old, I finished my first year of college, and would start my second. I did that thing almost every guy does and stopped getting haircuts and I would continue to grow my hair out for the next couple years. A lot of good movies came out and a couple would become all-time favorites of mine (Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). My interest in music was at an all-time high. I was pretty well-informed on indie and alternative music with a little help from MTVU (or so I thought). I started taking hip-hop music more seriously. And I was pretty humbled when I started reading Pitchfork and for the first week, I didn’t recognize a single artist they reviewed. But I wasn’t deterred, I just went deeper. Below are not only some of my favorite albums from 2010, but some that were important to me and my musical growth.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS–This was the album that turned The Black Keys into a sensation. Not to be that guy, but I was into the Keys before they were cool. I was introduced to them in 2006 with the Chulahoma EP, and they quickly became one of my favorites. I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brothers when it first came out. At first I wasn’t thrilled about the band trading their sludgy delta blues sound for a more R&B inspired rock. But at the same time, Brothers was a huge improvement over their previous two records. In true hipster form, I also lamented the attention that the band was getting, fearing this would lead to a more mainstream sound from them. But again, I was also happy that more people knew about one of my favorite bands. It took 8 years of hard work, but The Black Keys finally made it, and it still holds up as one of their best albums.

Ferret

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – ZOMBIE EP–In 2009, The Devil Wears Prada released their third album, With Roots Above and Branches Below, and it was their best work yet. The production finally caught up with their style, and their songwriting was better than ever. Metalcore was at its peak popularity and Prada was among the best. How could they possibly do better? Then in 2010 they released the Zombie EP and completely blew Roots out of the water with five fucking tracks! The band ramped up the speed and brutality, and the theme was based on vocalist Mike Hranica’s interest in zombie books and movies. Weirdly enough, The Walking Dead would premiere two months after this EP released and everyone else in the world would hop on the bandwagon. The band was just firing on all cylinders with this one. It’s a bright spot in Prada’s discography and one of the few metalcore releases I can still listen to today.

Parlophone

GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH–Prior to 2010, I didn’t pay much attention to Gorillaz. All I really knew about them was “Feel Good Inc.” and it wasn’t my style of music when it was popular. I don’t remember what caused me to give the band another look but when I did, I became almost obsessed with them. This newfound appreciation coincided almost exactly with the release of “Stylo,” the first single from Plastic Beach. Their third album would have them moving further from hip-hop and refining their wonky alt-pop. The result would be some of Gorillaz’ best tracks and best collaborations, with contributions from artists like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Little Dragon, and Bobby Womack (who had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to this album). Unfortunately, it would end up being the last great Gorillaz album. But they’re still making music, so there’s always hope.

Bad Boy/Wondaland

JANELLE MONÁE – THE ARCHANDROID–The first time I knew anything about Janelle Monáe was when I saw a poster at Best Buy. I was instantly intrigued by this black woman wearing a tuxedo with a massive pompadour hairstyle. What on earth kind of music could this woman make? I don’t know what I expected, but I liked what I found. Her funk infused, alternative R&B and psychedelic soul were so much fun that it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which is weird considering I didn’t give pop and R&B music much attention at this time in my life. The genres were presented through a lens that helped me bridge the gap from my preferred music at the time, with rock and progressive influences coming through. And because I’m a nerd, the overarching sci-fi narrative of the album helped too.

Big Beat/Atlantic

SKRILLEX – SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES–This entry has probably awakened some dark memories for some readers. Memories of hard drops, wobble bass, and questionable fashion choices. But regardless of how immature some of those trends seem now, they were a key milestone on the trajectory of EDM in popular culture. And it all starts right here with this EP. Scary Monsters was the EP and the song that made brostep a phenomenon. Whether you loved him or hated him, you knew about Skrillex. And if you listen to this EP beyond the title track, it proved back then that he wasn’t just a one trick pony. He had some range, and his work since proves that he still does. He hasn’t really matched the quality of this EP since, but the mark it left has given him producer credits throughout the decade and likely well into the future.

Mom+Pop/NEET

SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS–The “Loudness war” is something that has plagued music production for the past 30 years, and it can be the difference between a good album and a bad one. But there’s something to be said for using that digital compression as an aesthetic choice. From the very first seconds of Treats, you are bombarded with guitars, synths, and drums that are bricked out so hard that everything clips. Apart from bass boost memes, this is perhaps the only time that these levels of compression 100% serve the songs. It’s just one piece of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face approach to noise pop (or their self-described “shred pop”). I had never heard anything like it before this album, and nothing has quite captured this level of noise and energy for me since.

Kemado

THE SWORD – WARP RIDERS–I know that within the spheres of stoner rock and doom metal, this album is not held in very high regard. But, I wouldn’t know that if it wasn’t for this album. I don’t even remember where I first saw the album artwork, but the retro typeface and Roger Dean-esque sci-fi watercolors compelled me to listen to this album. Through it I was introduced to retro styled traditional metal and left hungry for more. Finding other artists like this proved difficult at the time, but I just didn’t know where to look. I finally did learn a few years later, and even though I’ve found “better” examples of what The Sword were trying to do on this album, the riffs on Warp Riders still hold a special place for me a decade later.

XL Recordings

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – CONTRA–This album was my introduction to Vampire Weekend and contains perhaps my favorite song of theirs (“Giving Up The Gun” is the song by which all other Vampire Weekend tracks are judged, and it has one of the best music videos). The bright and clean sound was a perfect break in the winter clouds when the album came out. When compared to the band’s debut, Contra took the formula they set for themselves and refined it. Rough edges were polished and influences were mined even deeper, creating a major improvement stylistically and compositionally. This really was a great work of indie rock that was only topped by their third album that took this stylistic trajectory to its logical, almost absurd conclusion.

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY album review

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY

Elektra, 2019

Blues rock/Psychedelic rock

Sturgill Simpson is a country and Americana singer and songwriter who refuses to be put in a box and takes pride in being a rebel. At least that’s what one would think based on his releases and actions, like busking outside the CMA awards in Nashville with his Grammy award for Best Country Album by his side.

SOUND & FURY is Simpson’s fourth album, following up the album that won him the aforementioned Grammy, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. While that album bucked country music traditions in its own way with strings and horns pushing songs into the territory of soul and funk, SOUND & FURY pushes boundaries even further with a sound that’s more balls-out boogie rock and roll than outlaw country. In fact, the only thing tying the sound of this album to anything released before it is Simpson’s distinctive drawl.

Simpson has described this album as a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll album” and it certainly delivers on that front. The guitars constantly have fuzz or filtering effects on them, with occasional synths and organs fighting for elbow room in the mix. The result is a sound that conjures a lot of descriptions, but “clean” is never one of them. Simpson’s vocals are often doubled with other effects, adding another layer of grease. It’s as if they took the concept of the rough recordings of The Black Keys early work and cranked up the sonic qualities and change a dusty recording to a grimy, post-apocalyptic one.

While songs like “Sing Along” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars” are some of the finest examples of the sleazy rock and roll–the former having a super steady drumbeat and synth bass pushing things towards late ’80s ZZ Top–other influences appear as well. “A Good Look” (co-written with John Prine) leans heavily towards disco and, for some reason, I imagine “Mercury In Retrograde” wouldn’t feel out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Lyrically the album delivers on the “sleazy, steamy” side with innuendos in the lyrics of “Remember To Breathe” and “Last Man Standing.” Other lyrical themes range from more typical blues rock fare like snide remarks at a former lover on “Sing Along,” but the most prevalent is the loneliness and alienation that accompanies fame on the tracks “Make Art Not Friends,” “Mercury In Retrograde,” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars.” The latter of the three might even be a reference to Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen.

A few lyrics add to the post-apocalyptic feel of the album, and likely provide the inspiration for the visuals of the anime film that accompanies the album. The film was made in collaboration with artist Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai, Batman Ninja) and Junpei Mizusaki (Batman Ninja). The film is more or less in the same vein as Daft Punk and Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555, in that there is no dialogue. The film only serves as a long-form music video for the entire album. Unlike Interstella, SOUND & FURY is non-linear, and in some ways more artistic, with some segments integrating live actors and having little to do with the central narrative. The film is worth watching at least once to get the full experience.

My only criticism of the album is that it can be sonically exhausting at times. I mentioned before that the instruments are often fighting for space. It’s a stylistic choice that gives a sense of a massive rock sound, and further drives the dirty, post-apocalyptic image that Simpson and his band are trying to conjure. However, there is very little breathing room on the album, and you are bombarded with a wall of sound for the better part of 41 minutes. There are a few welcome respites at the beginning of “Make Art Not Friends” and the entire track “All Said and Done,” but it’s not quite enough. The former is also a little too busy and loud for the sentiment it’s trying to convey.

Overall, I think SOUND & FURY is a great album, and easily the best raw, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll album I’ve heard all year. My followers on Instagram know that I praised the single “Sing Along” when it came out, saying that Simpson made a better Black Keys song than the Black Keys have in years. And I doubled down on that stance when I heard the whole album. It’s a style of rock music that I feel has been lacking in recent years and I’m happy to have Simpson’s offering to show me that it’s not dead.

4.0/5.0