The Black Keys
Chulahoma- The Songs of Junior Kibaugh, 180G Black Vinyl LP
The Black Keys are now well beyond obvious blues-rock duo comparisons, having carved out three of the best head-in-the-past, riffs-in-the-future albums of the past decade. Before ditching the only home they'd known, blues staple Fat Possum, for the NPRarified air of Nonesuch, Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney threw together this fitting farewell, saluting deceased labelmate Junior Kimbrough. In the process, they avoid the hammy recreations that cover albums often bring: This is no Encomium or Radiodread, but rather an acknowledgement of a hero and a simple cap-tip.
Working from the same modal electric blues that Kimbrough plied for decades, Black Keys take these songs and apply the swinging rollick and bended notes for which they've become known. Each track is a yearning, often flagellating ballad of sorts (titles: "Have Mercy On Me", "Work Me", "My Mind Is Ramblin'", etc.), and that's what Auerbach seems to have in common with Kimbrough-- a desperate wail coupled with subtly sophisticated guitar playing. But the songs sound completely different from the originals, sometimes distorting lyrical structure but mostly throwing a hazy, almost psychedelic trip onto what were once melodically downtuned blues arrangements.
The Keys have covered Kimbrough twice before and each of those other approaches was more straightforward and amped. "Do the Rump", from their debut The Big Come Up, is pretty ferocious rawk stuff. The aching "Meet Me in the City"-- perhaps Kimbrough's best ever-- is a nice contrast to some of the liberties they take elsewhere. For a guy who sired 36 kids and died with a common-law wife, Kimbrough seems pretty screwed romantically, yowling "Please don't leave me right now, girl, right now, oh no..." Like his inspiration, Auerbach sings in an unclear mumble that adds a lived-in weight to the music. The white-boy imitators from Ohio jacking a Mississippi Delta shaman's style is an idea fraught with unmanageable questions. The Black Keys, however, have been graceful and more than honoring in the past about their muses, so there doesn't seem to be a lot of culture-transmogrification, other than the occasional ripped-off riff. That much is testified to by Kimbrough's widow, Mildred, on the last track via answering machine, where she notes that Auerbach and Carney are "the only ones that really really played like Junior played his records." The track is a bit of a shameless pat-on-the-back to round out a classy six-song affair, but I doubt Kimbrough would have a hard time jamming with these two. -Pitchfork