THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM
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.