Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Black Keys - Delta Kream

This, in a sense, is where I came in.  As I’ve said before, The Black Keys’ early albums were among the catalysts for my rediscovery of blues-influenced music.  But I reckon that for any Keys fans who’ve only got on board in the hit-laden years of El Camino, Turn Blue, and ‘Let’s Rock’, new album Delta Kream could be quite a puzzle.
This collection of covers, focusing largely on songs by those masters of North Mississippi Hill Country blues Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, is back-to-basics, but not in the rough and ready manner of their debut album The Big Come-up.  Here the vibe is more akin to their lesser known 2006 mini-album Chulahoma: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough. (Chulahoma being the name of Kimbrough’s hill country juke joint.)
Delta Kream finds Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney recording live on the hoof, mostly with just
The Black Keys clock off and have some laughs
Pic by Joshua Black Wilkins
bassist Eric Deaton and guitarist Kenny Brown, both veterans of Kimbrough and Burnside bands. Together they create a signature sound that’s low key and restrained, right from their opening take on John Lee Hooker’s ‘Crawling Kingsnake’.  They lay down a loping, mesmeric groove, prone to sudden surges, while Auerbach’s vocal is contemplative and half-keening rather than the deep rumble of Hooker.  Then bursts of edgy, discordant guitar soloing arrive periodically to disrupt the groove.
“Hypnotic” is a word that’s often about hill country blues, with its winding, repetitive guitar lines, and it’s certainly relevant across much of Delta Kream. Whether it’s Mississippi Fred McDowall’s ‘Louise’, stumbling into earshot and ambling along on a back-and-forth riff like a world-weary take on ‘Rolllin’ An’ Tumblin’’, the halting and haunting interwoven guitars and chilly vocal of ‘Stay All Night’, or the downbeat reading of the Burnside classic ‘Going Down South’, with its nagging, nagging, nagging riff, falsetto vocal, and fluttering guitar breaks, there’s a tension like a storm that’s constantly threatening to break, but never quite does.
But if tracks like these are mesmeric, the suspense is leavened by shafts of light elsewhere.  ‘Coal Black Mattie’ is the prime, booty-shaking example.  Carney lays down an offbeat, not quite straight rhythm, then adds smashes’n’splashes of cymbal to augment Auerbach’s squeaking, skating slide amid the grinding rhythm guitar.  ‘Poor Boy A Long Way From Home’ is more upbeat than its title, a bout of jangle-and-oomph driven along by a shuffling rhythm.  Its lyric may be little more than the title, but that’s set against some wiry, slithering guitar soloing.  They have fun too with ‘Do The Romp’ (previously explored by them on The Big Come Up).  It’s all rollin’ an’ bumpin’ riffing, with a tambourine rattling erratically in the background, punctuated by squealing slide and Morse Code guitar.  And ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ is sprightly, weaving in subtle variations around its ebbing and flowing riff, while Auerbach lays out some more crackling guitar work as it gains intensity.  “That was great man,” says a voice at the end, and they’re right.
My one gripe is that the album feels overlong at 55 minutes.  You can, in fact, get too much of a good thing.  ‘Mellow Peaches’ earns its keep with swirls of organ from Ray Jacildo creating a counterpoint to the pulsing, swaggering groove, and there’s a slide solo that’s razor-like in its sharp ascent.  But ‘Walk With Me’, with another surge-and-subside riff, feels a little redundant, even it Pat Carney cranks it up a bit towards the end.
But there’s no arguing with the closing ‘Come On And Go With Me’.  It’s a reflective, “I need love so bad” slowie, with more high-pitched organ accents over the ultra-patient guitar motif.  Auerbach’s vocal feels like that of a self-pitying character, and the closing instrumental section winds down as if his pleas are doomed to end not with a bang but a whimper.
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.  Instead, as it draws you into the vortex of those hill country blues grooves, Delta Kream creates its own absorbing world.  Pack your bag, and let The Black Keys be your guides.

Delta Kream is out now on Nonesuch Records.

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