Friday, October 19, 2012

modern classics: Dan Auerbach's "Keep it Hid"

Dan Auerbach
Keep it Hid
2009 Nonesuch Records

it is easy to overlook the fact that, amid the decade-long unbroken streak of classic albums released by the akron ohio duo The Black Keys,  Dan Auerbach (the Key's singer/guitarist) released a solo album in 2009, "Keep it Hid," that just might very well be his finest work to date.

Two years prior to that on "Attack and Release," the black keys began broadening their stripped down-to-the-bone blues rawk sound by incorporating additional instrumentation (bass (!), keyboards, and percussion among others), but it was on "keep it hid,"  that auerbach fully emerged as a finely tuned songwriter capable of a wider range of emotions, textures, and sounds, proving himself more than just a scruffy dude with an awesome beard banging out supremely badass blues riffs. there is more depth here, the songwriting and instrumentation are more developed, and there is more air for the music to move through. auerbach performed the majority of the musical parts himself on a wide variety of instruments, with most of the drumming being handled by bob cesare, whose beats are as strong as anything by black keys drummer Patrick Carney.

"Keep it Hid" starts off with the creaky front porch folk of "Trouble Weighs a Ton," featuring harmony vocals with Dan and his uncle, guitarist John Quine.  the table is immediately set for a different musical experience from the cranked up Black Keys sounds we have grown accustomed to.  the song is stripped to its' emotional core;  hushed acoustic guitar, weary lyrics and two guys singing without any ornamentation at all.

the second track, "I Want Some More," stomps in with a sludgy swamp rock groove built on thick-as-mollasses fuzz bass, a mellotron vamping in the background, and Bob Cesare's mallets pounding on the floor toms.  Cesare separates himself immediately from any comparisons to Black Keys' drummer patrick carney by consistently forming the center of the groove and allowing everything to swirl around him rather than frantically trying to lead the charge.  this aspect to Cesare's drumming is a defining trait to "Keep it Hid."

the swampiness continues through "Heartbroken, in Disrepair," an Auerbach classic.  the "How Soon is Now"-ish phased guitar riff is fucking unforgettable.  Auerbach's songwriting is completely tuned in here, and it would take the Black Keys a few more years to catch up to this song.  again, Cesare is at the eye of the storm, forming the songs' core with a subtle drum march.  he continuously gives the album a tasteful, classic Creedence Clearwater Revival sound.

"Because I Should" is an unusual musical interlude.  an almost industrial sounding piece of musique concrete, it seems to be a collage of found sounds with backward masked wind chimes.  the tracks' purpose and intent is a mystery.  it may be to provide a bit of a wind down from "heartbroken" into the quieter tracks that follow,  to reset the listener's perspective for a stylistic shift, or possibly to act as a chapter break for the album.  occasionally, throughout the record, the quiet rustle of the wind and the gentle vibrations of the chimes come in again, so these sounds provide a mysterious thread from the beginning of the album to its end.

"Whispered Words" ushers in a quieter section of the album, and branches out into a classic R&B sound while "Real Desire" is a piece of cheek-to-cheek slow-dancing soul.  Organ and bass are the lead instruments on "Real Desire," with guitar woven almost into the background, and the drum machine intro leads to Auerbach's own live drumming.  this song is Auerbach's one-man-band moment.

the ethereal "When the Night Comes" might be Auerbach's finest creation to date.  Co-written by Auerbach's father, Charles, the song has a hazy, luminescent glow... beautiful and touching lyrics sung over soothing acoustic guitar, an almost invisible bass drum resonating in the ether, and ghostly harmony vocals by Jessica Lea Mayfield on the chorus.  it's undoubtably Auerbach's most personal and sincere work.   Recorded, engineered, and mixed by Mark Neill at the start of these experimental sessions, "When the Night Comes" was a large leap forward for Auerbach and signaled a massive creative shift for him as an artist, setting the tone for the wide-open approach to the recordings that would follow.  the wind chimes fade in at the end  and lead the listener into the album's next chapter.

"Mean Monsoon" is a steamy, sexy tango and cranks the albums' heat up once again with dueling hot shit guitar licks by Auerbach and Quine, the upright bass of Rob "Thorney" Thorsen, and Cesare's thumping drums.  the mood continues into "The Prowl," with a horny fuzz bass line and a cool drum shuffle from Cesare and bleeds over into the sinister title track, "Keep it Hid."  once again, Auerbach and Cesare are locked into a no frills, classic CCR swamp rock sound and it sounds absolutely magical.

the menacing clouds break open for the sunny 60's garage rock of "my last mistake" until the ominous, creepy paranoia of "When i Left the Room" snakes backs in.  the track is covered with a heavy atmosphere of serpentine guitars, banjo pickin',  backwards guitar soloing, and what sounds like a goddamn sitar strummed  over a layer of Cesare's now patented floor tom drum rolls. the recording is a dense web of sound, masterfully produced, performed, and assembled in the final mix. it is an album highlight for sure.  "Street Walkin'" is the last slab of hefty guitar meat on the album, and the framework for all of the great Black Keys tunes that would later show up on "Brothers" and it's follow-up, "El Camino" is formed.  the wind chimes at the songs' end signals one last chapter break.

Auerbach and Cesare close the album out with the twin guitar strums of "Goin' Home," echoing the records' stripped down opening notes of "Trouble Weighs a Ton," and brings the entire piece around full circle.  Auerbach's lyrics seem wiser and less weary now, the guitars brighter and more optimistic.  the chimes once again fade out and brings the album to a close.

"keep it hid" almost destroyed the black keys. at the time, patrick carney was distracted by a brutal divorce and felt betrayed by auerbach's solo venture, which he knew nothing about until the album was being released. but when the dust settled and carney and auerbach kissed and made up, the black keys were reenergized and opened new creative doors, expanding their sound dramatically with their massively successful albums "Brothers" and "El Camino," doors that were first pried open by auerbach on "keep it hid." a bit less self conscious than any black keys album, "keep it hid" is more wide open and uninhibited, and might turn out to be auerbach's defining artistic statement when it's all said and done. a classic from one of rock music's modern greats.

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