Keep It Hid
Label: Nonesuch Records
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A frequent criticism laid on Akron, Ohio duo The Black Keys is that electric white-boy blues has been done to death. What these detractors don’t take into consideration is that guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach isn’t necessarily mining a long-stagnant musical idiom for its proven accessibility to a mainstream music-buying audience. It’s more that it’s just what he does. Auerbach is sort of a man out of time. The Keys, like an increasing number of other artists, have no qualms with licensing their tunes to sell underwear or cars, bespeaking a lack of self-consciousness that carries into the way Auerbach comes across in interviews. After the release of 2006’s Magic Potion, Auerbach told one interviewer, without irony, that he’d been listening to a lot of rock music lately- a weird statement coming from the guitarslinger of a band lauded by rock purists. In another interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, Auerbach discussed his all-time favorite autoharp players (drummer Pat Carney quickly made fun of him, saying he loves the work of “Obscure Guy Blah Blah Blah”).
Furthermore, in Rolling Stone’s 2008 year-end coverage, the magazine asked a group of artists to name their favorite records of the year. In amongst nods to Beyonce and Lil Wayne, Auerbach went on record as saying his favorites were two re-issues of 1960s sessions from one-time Buddy Holly producer Norman Petty, both of which incidentally were re-released in 2007. The man is such a dyed-in-the-wool admirer of music of days gone by that decades and fads since have had no bearing on what he does artistically; Auerbach plays white-boy electric blues because he happens to be a white boy who loves and plays electric blues.
Ostensibly, much of the proceeds from the aforementioned licensing deals went toward Auerbach building and operating his own all-analog studio, Akron Analog. It’s here, in between recording debuts by Texans Hacienda and Ohioan protegee Jessica Lea Mayfield, that Auerbach found time to record debut solo album Keep It Hid. As a producer, he’s easily found a trademark style, and Keep It Hid is no different. It’s warm, full and has a spaciousness often sorely lacking from today’s ultra-loud compressed rock records. On “Heartbroken, In Disrepair,” Auerbach demonstrates his knack for finding an arresting vibe on his recordings; here, a typical blues chord progression is tripped up by a hard tremolo, the result being trippy slow-motion riffing. Like Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” “Mean Monsoon” creates its own bizarre environment where the normal laws of rock physics do not apply. The gentle “When the Night Comes” (featuring Mayfield) could be a lullaby to his young daughter but is worth mentioning for what sounds like a stately mellotron providing the bed for the song.
For fans of the Black Keys, not to mention Auerbach himself, this record is interesting for the fact that he explores the sound of a full band. “Monsoon,” “Whispered Words” and the title track feature not just a bass, but an upright bass, lending the songs a latter day Waitsian bounce. The jaunty “My Last Mistake” sounds like a long-lost Creedence song – a three piece jamming away behind him earnestly. One does miss the presence of Pat Carney when a drum machine rears its electronic head on a few tracks, or when Auerbach strips it all away to perform acoustic ballads. While it’s still a pleasure to hear the man’s soulful voice, it puts full emphasis on his lyrics. Despite having written some interesting contemporary blues lyrics (“No Trust” and “Hard Row” from 2003’s thickfreakness), Auerbach isn’t exactly a wordsmith and his vocals have always been most satisfying as a beleaguered human wail struggling to be heard amidst the blistering howl of his overdriven amps.
Auerbach isn’t tempted into self-indulgence by the experimentation elbowroom a solo record affords him, which pays off. Last year’s Danger Mouse-produced Attack and Release was hampered by kooky arrangements that came off as kitschy claptrap (banjos, primal chants, and flute!). In fact, the weaker songs on Keep It Hid are the ones that most sound like Black Keys records, leaving the pop-oriented, out-of-character tunes being the strong suit. One may not need re-invent the wheel but there’s certainly something to be said for building a damn good one.
by Chris Middleman