Is anybody not yet on board? The conductor is certainly making it difficult to ignore him. In early 2008 he, along with his co-conspirator in the Black Keys Patrick Carney, released Attack and Release, another gem in their growing catalog. Later last year they dropped a concert DVD Live at the Crystal Ballroom, a document that further cements their status as a band to be reckoned with. And now, only three months down the road, Auerbach rolls out his first solo venture. Keep It Hid could hardly be a less appropriate title considering that the peripatetic singer/songwriter has done anything but hide this past year.
What’s the story behind all this superhuman productivity? Auerbach has stated that, quite simply, he never stops working. Equal parts driven and inspired, it made all the sense in the world for him to build his own studio. Akron Analog, named after his hometown and preferred method of recording, is where he began assembling the rough cuts, mostly written during recent tours, into the songs that came together as Keep It Hid.
In addition to singing, guitar playing and his role as producer, Auerbach tackled drums, percussion and other instruments including glockenspiel. To further flesh out the sound, he recruited friends and family. Bob Cesare, also a multi-instrumentalist, handles the additional drum duties, and guitarist James Quine (Auerbach’s uncle, and first cousin of late underground guitar hero Robert Quine) chimes in. This all hands on deck approach results in an aggressive yet nuanced recording, which manages to take the greasy edge off the Black Keys’ signature sound without sacrificing any of its bluster.
Keep It Hid is not a retreat from the sonic explorations Auerbach undertook on Attack and Release, it is an expansion of them. The songs stretch out with that familiar multi-tracked guitar base, augmented throughout with the often subtle employment of organ, banjo and bass. This work unquestionably signals a step forward in Auerbach’s rapidly evolving style. Listening to Keep It Hid, it is easier to understand why (and how) Auerbach was allegedly writing songs with (and for) Ike Turner in 2007 (when Turner abruptly died, Attack and Release turned into a proper Black Keys album).
There is familiar territory covered here: the Delta drones of Junior Kimbrough (from Chulahoma), the electrified country blues stomp from Thickfreakness, and the more experimental harmonic experimentation from Rubber Factory, Magic Potion and, of course, Attack and Release. But Keep It Hid takes a deeper dive into a variety of source material, ranging from Motown to bluegrass. Seriously. And lest that sound a tad too facile or all-encompassing a description, it might help to expound upon Auerbach’s astonishing versatility. With many musicians, it’s too often an overly generous bit of grasping to discuss the manner in which they infuse a variety of disparate elements into their work—particularly when those elements serve more as superficial window dressing to signify unearned street cred, or actual facility. Listening to Keep It Hid, it is impossible to ignore the myriad touches (sometimes sneaky, mostly masterful) Auerbach employs to embellish his songs: there are snatches of psychedelic guitar (think Nuggets era garage rock), elemental—and bastardized—British blues (itself initially an homage to the ‘50s Chicago scene), and the sing-a-long-hair mini anthems of the ‘70s.
Auerbach never seems to be straining himself or merely appropriating other, signature sounds just for the sake of doing so. The music he has so obviously, and voraciously, absorbed makes him who he is, pure and simple. For instance, on “Mean Monsoon” his voice is a chemical snarl that seems a bit like Peter Green filtered through early, dirty Junior Wells. The music is reminiscent of vintage Yardbirds, complete with tambourine tapping and chorus-crashing bongo flourishes. “When I Left the Room” features his now patented paranoid snarl, propelled by guitars that seethe behind a banjo (!) march. It is not unlike the best Black Keys material, with all the obvious and not-so-obvious influences on the surface, unfolding into something startling original. His voice, which at times is able to convey a pained vulnerability offset by a gruff, even defiant resolve, has improved with each album. On “Whispered Words”, possibly the best thing Auerbach has achieved to this point, all of his skills are on display: the opening build-up is Motown without the horns, with subdued guitar weaving around his plaintive vocals. As the song gathers steam, suddenly it takes a detour from Detroit and heads south into Stax territory, sans the crackerjack studio musicians. It is astounding that these very unique and even sacrosanct sounds are being incorporated in a fashion that manages to feel unforced and even organic.
This last observation warrants repeating: Auerbach is not aping classic riffs so much as they seem to sweat out of his pores. It’s all up there, in his head, and he is channeling it into his own vision in a manner that is consistent and convincing. A few other highlights include the gorgeous “When the Night Comes”, which features Jessica Lea Mayfield—who also appeared on the last track from Catch and Release. On “Real Desire” and “My Last Mistake”, Auerbach offers up future Karaoke material, while “On the Prowl” and “Heartbroken, in Disrepair”, he delivers the goods in a way that few people would want to tackle, even in the privacy of their own car. Finally, keeping with his tradition of ending albums on the right note, he leaves us with a sublime acoustic coda, fittingly entitled “Goin’ Home”. Auerbach, of course, is already home, and has never really left: he remains loyal to Akron but has long since staked claim on more extensive territory.
In sum, Dan Auerbach was responsible for helping make one of the better albums of 2008, and Keep It Hid is already a contender in 2009. Should we go ahead and call him the current King of the Hill? Based on all available evidence, he’s that guy, and the competition for his crown is not particularly close at this time.