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

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM album review

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM

Radio Milk Records, 2020

Psychedelic rock/Garage rock

The COVID-19 outbreak has pretty much turned our world upside down. One area of the world that has been affected in more ways than some people might expect is the music industry. Look no further for proof of how the machinations of things we take for granted go far beyond what we might imagine. The most obvious impact is the broad cancellation of the majority of tours and festivals. This not only impacts the ticket holders, but the venues and the people who work behind the scenes. Many major artists have delayed the release of their new albums because they won’t be able to support the release with a tour. Others have delayed them because the actual means of production of physical units has been impacted. However some artists are using this as an opportunity to give us new music. Trivium didn’t delay the release of their latest album so people would have something to listen to. Charli XCX announced that she would write, record, and release an album in 5 weeks from isolation. And another artist that made a similar promise was White Denim.

On March 14th, White Denim announced that they would write, record, and release an album by April 17th. For those keeping score, that’s another entire album completed in about 5 weeks. The band met their goal and the album was made available to download from their label’s website on April 17th. For the rest of us, it was added to all major streaming services on May 8th. For those who don’t know, White Denim are a psychedelic garage rock band who often incorporate elements of progressive and math rock by way of dizzying guitar riffs. This unique brand of rock music has created songs that range from amazing to needlessly complicated to unremarkable. So where do the tracks on World As A Waiting Room fall?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that the fact that this album even exists after such a short writing and recording period is impressive. I know internet personalities have recorded stuff in shorter time as a bit of a gimmick (like Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang’s First of October project where they write and record an entire album in a single day). But the fact that this is a group of four people and that they had the additional challenge of doing this during quarantine makes this quite an accomplishment, regardless of the quality of what’s in the album. And the fact that it’s actually decent is even more impressive.

Yes, while it’s not a spectacular standout in White Denim’s discography, World As A Waiting Room is pretty good. Plenty of garage rock grooves and catchy hooks can be found in its nine tracks. A few standout track in particular are “Matter of Matter,” “DVD,” and “Eagle Wings” where some of the frantic energy of the band’s earlier material can be found. White Denim’s signature fuzzy guitars are all over the album as you’d expect with organs and synths adding extra color on several tracks like “I Don’t Understand Rock and Roll” and “Slow Death.” I guess a good way to describe the album is that it’s on-brand with the style that White Denim have established for themselves.

There are a couple glaring weaknesses of the album, however. The track “Work” is pretty light on lyrical content and is also the longest song on the album at over 6 minutes. This means the few lyrics it has are repeated quite a few times. The song does have a pretty solid groove that makes it mostly tolerable, but once you get past the 4-minute mark, it starts to wear on you. Then there’s “Queen of the Quarantine” and yes, they went there. I know it’s pretty much expected that they would write a song about the quarantine when the entire album was written in quarantine, but this one just comes across as little more than corny. There are a couple other instances of repetitive lyrics like in “Go Numb,” but the rest of the tracks are short enough to keep them from getting too annoying.

Overall, the best way to sum up the album is the way I did earlier. It’s very on-brand for White Denim, and it’s ultimately a pretty engaging listen. Their more recent output hasn’t been the most memorable to me, so I’m glad to say this one was to a degree. It does have it’s weak points, but when you consider the short amount of time that this entire album was made in, they’re pretty easily forgiven.

3.5/5.0

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!)