The Black Keys have never searched for the limelight. Even during the arena-slaying heights of 2010’s ‘Brothers’ and 2011’s ‘El Camino’, the blues giants said they never wanted to be rock stars. The duo kind of stumbled upon that magic mainstream groove by sticking firmly to the beaten blues-rock path with vintage influences central to their flagship sound.
It’s unsurprising, then, that 20 years in, the Ohio band aren’t about to turn off the familiar highway for album 10: instead, they’re digging deeper into their musical heritage with a golden oldies covers album. Fresh from touring 2019’s ‘Let’s Rock’, frontman Dan Auerbach found himself holed up in his Nashville studio with Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, two longtime sidemen of his blues heroes Junior Kimbrough and R.L Burnside. Paying back these artists, who shaped his band’s sound, was a no-brainer.
‘Delta Kream’ makes for a slightly geeky tribute to these greats, replete with songs from the wider North Mississippi country blues scene. Drummer Patrick Carney has said the record just fell into place: “We were just recording with these dudes who played with our heroes. It was literally the easiest record we’ve ever made.”
The impulsive nature of the unrehearsed project is evident from the off, with the early bass rumbles and laid-back jam of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Crawling Kingsnake’. Featuring slide guitars perfect for late-night club shows and that gritty rough Mississippi sound, it’s a prickly tone-setter for the brooding 11 tracks that follow. Elsewhere ‘Mellow Peaches’ offers a simmering cool with jabbing riffs and howling lines that show a band well within their comfort zone.
The Black Keys’ hallmark soulful swagger is all over the reclined record, largely because the songs are so closely aligned with their own crunchy blues-rock. ‘Stay All Night’ jolts out with Auerbach’s vocals capturing the ache of the trade expertly. The duo leave no stone unturned in exploring the sound and spirit of the blues legends across this somewhat timeless journey. The same goes for the likes of Kimbrough’s ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ with lines typical of the genre: “My mamma told me / When I was a child / She said, ‘Son / Gonna have hard days’”.
This record reinforces a willing and gradual retreat from the rock juggernaut space The Black Keys once occupied. The moody jams bubble with authenticity in a deeply satisfying trip back in time. While this record is unlikely to bring the band or the cultural touchstones they cover back to the top, it’s a soul-searching move that satisfies their own fandom while showing they’ll never compromise.
Release date: May 14
Record label: Nonesuch Records Inc.