The Black Keys will always suffer from comparisons to the White Stripes. Like the band’s Midwestern garage-rock duo counterparts also named after a color and a noun, the Black Keys has spent its time in the dingy but powerful ghetto of pretty much hitless electric minimalist blues. It has since strayed from its roots into more artsy territory, and in a further mirroring of its sister group, its lead singer, Dan Auerbach, has embarked on a side project that more fully explores one aspect of the band’s sound. Although the Raconteurs are an unabashedly pop-rock group, Auerbach’s solo album delves more deeply into slow, soulful gospel territory than the Black Keys ever would.
Still present are the heavily distorted guitars and Auerbach’s guttural wail, so much so that some of the tracks on his new solo release, Keep It Hid, sound like outtakes from some lost Black Keys session somewhere between the dirty amateur rocking of The Big Come Up and thickfreakness, but with more polish and without the bug-eyed immediacy of either. The main “problem” is that this is indistinguishable from an early Black Keys release and lacks Patrick Carney’s tight drumming, which might elevate merely raunchy-sounding riffs into something more like the minimalist, yet powerful all-out blues explosion that we’ve come to expect from the Ohioan duo.
The opening track, “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” is an indicator of the unhurried nature of this album. More of a gospel song than traditional electric blues, it sounds like “You’re the One” slowed down and made about twice as melancholy, as you can practically taste the ennui and despair dripping off Auerbach’s voice.
“Whispered Words” further explores this slowed down territory and displays the slight-variations-on-a-theme approach to riff and lyric writing that has earned the Black Keys their second-headliner slot at Coachella. Yes, it is heavy, and yes, it is slow, but it lacks some of the punch of earlier releases. Instead, it sounds like watered down swamp sludge, a prime example of where Carney’s drumming could have pushed a song to another level but was noticeably absent.
Auerbach also borrows somewhat conspicuously from fellow Midwesterners the Stooges with his “Street Walkin.” You will recall a somewhat slowed-down, bluesier reprise of “Raw Power,” complete with swirling yet powerful guitar riffs that sound like the depths of some kind of psychedelic melancholia that then migrate back into the mean streets of the city to deliver some powerful blows of their own. Although the drumming is acceptable on the track, it once again suffers from the absence of Carney, as it never moves above (or below) the level of the streets into some really interesting territory.
I would be remiss in writing this review without mentioning the beautiful “Goin’ Home,” which manages to be the most spare, yet perhaps the most affecting song on the entire album.
Keep It Hid suffers from a lack of identity. Whereas Jack White moved into a second group with, if anything, more powerful creative forces than his original one; Auerbach heads up a group of competent if not virtuosic studio musicians who don’t seem to have the juju necessary to channel this into a coherent album that delivers on its promise.
The story of the Black Keys has long been that its musicians are greater than the sum of its parts, conjuring up excellent music out of the most basic of instrumentation and songwriting. In this solo project, Auerbach gets exactly the sum of what he puts in, and while that sum leads to a listenable, occasionally enjoyable album, it doesn’t equate to sonic greatness.