I don't like blues rock duos. There are probably several factors at play here. 1) I don't like the blues: all too often, the genre falls into a parody of itself, relying on the worn 12-bar I-IV-V formula, the A/A/B lyrics, and flatted thirds, fifths and sevenths galore. By and large, I find the genre boring (with some notable exceptions like Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan who manage to do interesting things with it). 2) I like a fuller sound than a duo can generally provide: if the guitarist is chugging away at chords, the music can feel repetitive; if he's playing melody, the music feels half-dressed and sparse as there's nothing providing him support save the drums. This is not to say that I dislike blues rock duos: I harbor no animosity. It's merely that this genre of rock music doesn't interest me. I prefer variety, both in form and instrumentation.
This is a long way of saying that I'm glad that Dan Auerbach's first solo album, Keep it Hid, is not just a Black Keys album with a different drummer. 2008's much-acclaimed Attack and Release saw The Black Keys expanding their sonic horizons with the production help of Danger Mouse. Their normally sparse sound is filled out in the studio: one hears flutes, banjos, choirs and even the occasional bass guitar, all lacking from the stricter formula of earlier Black Keys releases. I even find several of the songs on Attack and Release enjoyable. And again, I'm not saying this to dump on The Black Keys: they do what they do well; the genre just doesn't do anything for me. Keep it Hid, however, does.
The album opens up with—brace yourself—a strummed solo acoustic guitar and Auerbach's naked voice, singing "Trouble Weighs a Ton." If you didn't know The Black Keys, you'd think you were starting an album in the vein of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska: unadorned and wistful strummed guitar songs. That notion is broken by the second song. however, as Auerbach burns through "I Want Some More" with the sort of ramshackle-junkyard-stomp that informs much of Tom Waits's Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs, his voice now ragged and sounding as though it's been fed through the same pedals as his guitar.
The album continues to cover a lot of ground, from tracks that wouldn't sound out of place on a Black Keys album (following the trajectory laid down by Attack and Release) like "Heartbroken in Disrepair," "Street Walkin'," and "The Prowl," to "My Last Mistake" which sounds like it came from a Jackson Browne album, to "When the Night Comes," which is an all-out finger-picked, string-backed (well, synth-strings) ballad in which Auerbach's usual Jim James-like bark transmogrifies into something resembling an American Van Morrison. He ends the album with "Goin' Home," a song that ends the album as he began it, save for that this time the acoustic guitar is joined by a mandolin and a slide guitar: The first and last impression of the album, then, is of a man making music on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from the music that made him famous
This will likely be a divisive album among fans of The Black Keys: for those who didn't like where Danger Mouse directed Attack and Release, this may be seen as a continued watering down of Auerbach's rough-around-the-edges garage rock bona fides; for those who liked the change, this will be continued affirmation that Auerbach is either still growing as an artist or has hidden musical caches he has only recently begun to mine. And for those, like me, who weren't into The Black Keys to begin with, it will prove both a challenge to preconceived notions and an enticement to delve further into Auerbach's work. I'll be damned if this album hasn't grown on me.
Favorite Track: "When the Night Comes "