Friday, May 21, 2021

The Black Keys Find Comfort In Their Roots On Their Ode To The Delta Blues

The Black keys have never strayed from what has made them one of the most successful bands of the last decade. The Lizard brain riffs of frontman Dan Auerbach and the loose but rhythmic drumming of Pat Carney are recognisable to anyone that has listened to Rock radio in the past ten years. 

On 'Delta Kream' – the tenth studio album released by The Black Keys – the band pays their respects to the music that helped shape them, with 11 covers of songs that influenced the pair as an up-and-coming band in Ohio.

The album opens with a re-working of the 1920’s signature blues song ‘Crawling Kingsnake’. The sleazy track made famous by The Doors, on their 1971 album ‘L.A. Woman’, feels much more at home in the hands of The Black Keys. The fuzz-infused bass and wailing guitars are Southern whilst Auerbach’s falsetto vocals acknowledge the pain that is so ingrained in the American blues.

Louise’ and ‘Poor Boy a Long Way From Home’ are age-old delta tales of outlaws on the run, missing their love and feeling helpless about the situation they find themselves in. The sparse lyrics on each track only enhance the superb musicianship of Auerbach whilst Carney’s drumming allows the songs to feel fresh and modern despite their 20thcentury themes.

Stay All Night’ finds The Black Keys at their mellow best, with soft drums and vocals supported by a skilled Auerbach guitar performance. The track is the first cover of a Junior Kimbrough song. Kimbrough was the main inspiration behind the album and whose tracks feature on 'Delta Kream', with 5 of the 11 covers being attributed to the Mississippi legend.

The more country-inspired ‘Going Down South’ is another example of Auerbach’s superb vocal range, as his haunting falsetto vocals are backed by slide guitars and a bassline straight out of the sweltering heat of the American Deep South.

Slide guitars are found everywhere on the album - which is of little surprise considering the inspiration of Delta Kream lies heavily in the blues artists that made such instrumentation famous – but nowhere are they more noticeable than on the dirty blues track ‘Coal Black Mattie’. The once again sparse lyrics are entwined in a cacophony of slide guitars and bass riffs, whilst Carney maintains a pounding beat, demonstrating his knack of keeping a track fresh with his snare heavy fills.

Do the Romp’ is done justice by Auerbach’s sticky and dirty guitar riffs and squealing guitars as the music matches the sleaziness of the lyrics, whilst ‘Sad Days Lonely Nights’ and ‘Walk With Me’ are tales of heartbreak and misery as old as the Mississippi Herself.

The foot-tapping rhythm of ‘Mellow Peaches’ is a perfect example of the tight musicianship that flows so easily through The Black Keys. The southern imagery of “Peaches / Hanging way up in your Tree” evokes scenes of the whitewashed houses of the plantations in the heat of the Louisiana sun. Yet the moody delivery of the lyrics and the haunting guitar accompanied by sparse and soft drums speak of a history of pain felt by the community that created the very music that inspired the band. The lyrics like “Hanging way up in your Tree” become a lot more sinister in the context of the segregated south that was a part of the life of Big Joe Williams, the original author of the song.

The album ends with a slow and somber song about the upheaval of life on the move, never having enough time to stay with the one you love. ‘Come on and Go With Me’ finds Auerbach pleading with his partner to leave with him.

Delta Kream feels like a bookmark in The Black Keys story, an ode to the music that has so inspired them over the past two decades. Yet, with anything that lasts so long, it becomes in danger of going stale. Auerbach may well be pleading with the lifelong fans of his band to come with him on a new journey, to take a new direction into a future where the burdens of their inspirations are not so restrictive.

The Black Keys have made a great success out of blues riffs and catchy lyrics and if something is as successful as the previous decade for the band then why change it? Hopefully, with Delta Kream, the pair from Nashville have finally accepted their chapter in the story of American Rock ‘n’ Roll and are now willing to experiment more with their sound.

No one knows what the next album will hold for The Black Keys, but I am certainly intrigued to find out….

James Ogden 
Image: Delta Kream Official Album Artwork

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