If you’re like me, you despised “Let’s Rock,” The Black Keys’ most recent album behind “Delta Kream.” It lacked all the gritty, garage blues of their previous releases, and seemed to indicate that the rock duo was moving closer and closer to pop. Needless to say, I was not necessarily looking forward to listening to “Delta Kream,” thinking it would be comprised of the same kind of stuff.
Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. “Delta Kream” could not be more different than their previous album. It’s a magnificent homage to the Mississippi Delta blues that Patrick Carney (drums) and Dan Auerbach (voice & guitar) drew their original musical inspiration from. Comprised of covers from classic artists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Johnny Lee Hooker, it’s a masterpiece of slow, crawling blues. In fact, Burnside’s bassist (Eric Deacon) and Kimbrough’s slide guitarist (Kenny Brown) play alongside the duo throughout the entire album.
Recorded in just ten hours at Auerbach’s Nashville studio, it has the spontaneous energy of a jam session, rather than a meticulous, drawn-out album. Studio chatter and little mistakes fill the gaps between songs, reminiscent of a true rock ‘n roll spirit. You can tell that there were no rehearsals and little planning, just a group of amazing musicians coming together. Nevertheless, each song is incredibly nuanced. The addition of Deacon and Brown creates a sound that is wonderfully layered and free-flowing, unlike the usual hard-hitting simplicity of the Black Keys’ work. Though I’m a real sucker for their original sound, “Delta Kream” is a refreshing pull in a new, yet classic, direction.
Some would argue that there’s not much variation between the songs, but it is a tried and true tribute to country blues. Many of the tracks are classics that have been covered and re-covered for decades. Originally performed by Big Joe Williams (but made famous by Johnny Lee Hooker) “Crawling Kingsnake” is made into a muddy, six-minute-long jam, contrasting the twangy ’60s rock version by The Doors. “Going Down South,” a Burnside track, stands out with a rare falsetto appearance from Auerbach and some truly amazing sliding guitar work.
You can really sense how passionate Carney and Auberach are about country blues, especially the work of Junior Kimbrough. Their 2006 album “Chulahoma” is comprised entirely of his work, and “Delta Kream” is nearly the same. The song “Do the Romp,” one of Kimbrough’s originals, also appeared on The Black Keys’ first album. It’s incredible to hear the difference in their style and how they’ve matured after nearly two decades of fame.
Yes, better covers of the songs in “Delta Kream” exist. It is certainly not the best blues album in the world, but The Black Keys’ spirit and passion is tangible. It’s clear that their hearts lie with country blues, and they sure are good at it.