One of the foremost bands of the garage rock revival, and the act most responsible outside of The White Stripes for popularizing two-piece bands over the last 20 years, the Black Keys have carved out a comfortable spot for themselves since 2002 with their energized throwback pastiche. Now following up 2019’s “Let’s Rock”, Carney and Auerbach opt to switch gears and put out Delta Kream, an album of blues covers. It’s not a high-risk move given their musical foundation, but hearing the twosome directly tribute the sounds they’ve dedicated their careers to refurbishing is nevertheless intriguing on its face.
The comparative chillness of Delta Kream is clear from the start: Their rendition of Big Joe Williams’ “Crawling Kingsnake” rolls along in such a relaxed, casual manner that you’d be expecting Jim Morrison to hop on and deliver at least a chorus a la the Doors’ version of the song. The nonchalant stroll of “Kingsnake” fully informs “Louise”, while “Poor Boy a Long Way From Home” comes off like “Lonely Boy” if you stripped it down to its most basic essence. “Stay All Night” bolsters Delta’s laid-back angle, in a subtly jammy fashion such as if you took “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and threw some light vocals over it. The entrancing groove of “Going Down South” invokes nostalgia to the blues and garage cuts of the ‘50s and ‘60s; partially setting up the prime-Lonnie-Mack-backing-track-if-only cut “Coal Black Mattie” in turn.
“Do The Romp” provides some more rolling-thunder road music; full of groove and gritty as the song requires it to be. “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” is essentially a copy of “Poor Boy a Long Way From Home” minus the key difference; “Walk With Me” doesn’t stand that far out either in its sonic parallels to “Crawling Kingsnake” and “Coal Black Mattie”. “Mellow Peaches” treads a similar line too; albeit in an obligatory mid-tempo shuffle rather than a straightforward roll like other fraternal twin tracks on the album. Predictably, the closer “Come on and Go With Me” is essentially the same too, key, vibe and all; besides the slow, hypnotic pace that it’s executed at one of its main differentiating qualities is the Ronnie Hammond-esque quality that Auerbach’s voice takes on with this cut; giving the whole song a resurrected spin on Atlanta Rhythm Section when they opted for soul (and some attitude) over sap- always a nice thing to hear.
It’s true that, since it’s a root genre, you can only go so far with the blues. Thus explains some of the creative limitations on Delta Kream, though a few tweaks here and there could have made this record a lot more exciting and versatile than it turned out. There was potential in the first half but by the end the tracks get unfortunately and uncomfortably resemblant of each other. With that said, Delta Kream is perhaps the most honest record that The Black Keys have put out; not in a sense of lyrical vulnerability but in terms of expressing who they really are musically. Neo-garage can be looked at either as a vibrant revivalist strain of rock or as a hollow simulacrum of a sound and era gone past; if you are of the former mind you automatically won’t be bothered by this record and the latter won’t have as many gripes as they usually do, simply because the pretensions are stripped away and only the raw, untouched elements of The Black Keys are shown here. How they can take that and fuel their next lively crop of originals with it, if they choose to do so will be worth paying attention to in the next few years.