On his 2011 debut, Will The Guns Come Out, Filipino/Palestinian skater-turned-rocker Hanni El Khatib firmly aligned himself with society’s outcasts and downtrodden (see that record’s “Fuck It, You Win”; a banjo-folk cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”) and was quoted as saying that he was making music for “anyone who has ever been shot or hit by a train” – two demographics marketers often overlook, but one was that a smart garage punk like El Khatib could turn into a fanbase. Will The Guns… was hardly an original record – indeed nearly every review of it employed the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll pastiche’, and for what it’s worth, he shares a record label with two other successful rock repurposers, the Allah-Las and Nick Waterhouse – but it was fun, with energy and style to burn, to say nothing of the fact that it largely answered the question, What would it sound like if Jon Spencer fronted the White Stripes? In today’s lean rock world, meeting those conditions again on a sophomore disc counts as not breaking something that doesn’t need fixing, and Head In The Dirt successfully picks up where El Khatib’s debut left off.
So yeah, El Khatib’s still chronicling the folks on the other side of the tracks (presumably before they were hit by a train): the self-made criminal of the spy-movie soundtrack-gone-reggae “Nobody Move”; the hard-partying, car-crashing idiot of “Pay No Mind” (“My useless brain is ruined”); the guy who “almost died on the street / but you were quick on your feet” on the Middle Eastern-tinged “Low” and the more general dire situations of “Save Me” and “Sinking In The Sand”. Producer Dan Auerbach, who has done similar work with the retro-minded Hacienda, helps pump up El Khatib’s sound – some keys here, female backing vox there, though maybe a little less of the first record’s rockabilly vibe (“Dead Wrong”) – but it’s safe to say El Khatib’s mastered this shtick. That said, it’s also nice to report that his deviations from the formula are among Dirt‘s highlights and point to a direction for the future: the boogie piano that anchors “Family” (as well as that tune’s Big Guitar Ending), and the just-this-side-of-cute pop gem “Penny” (“You were hiding underneath my soul/sole… please shine on”), that, admittedly, the less generous might peg as Ben Harper Lite.
Questions of authenticity may continue to swirl around El Khatib – and he certainly does nothing to quell them – but he’s a canny musician and one with a day job in marketing/branding, as a skater fashion label creative director, so he knows a thing or three about image. Dude knows what’ll sell, and he’s put it all on Head In The Dirt.
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