With their tenth album, The Black Keys are ready to look back on a 20-year career with a tribute to their formative influences. Largely improvised behind the scenes, there is little that new album Delta Kream sets out to do that the Black Keys have not already achieved. The record’s branding is not worlds away from 2011’s El Camino, though its content—a collection of blues covers—is closer to the mood of 2002’s debut, The Big Come Up. For those still fixed on Turn Blue or Let’s Rock, the dive back into blues may seem the inevitable next step for a band once again digging around its roots.
The concept should not be too challenging. A so-called blues-rock revival has garnered a coterie of its own—in part led by the Black Keys in the early noughties, and now seemingly followed by them. The new record embraces the clumsy overdrive of the last 20 years, less so the muddied production of the 80 before that.
And yet, the assortment of songs manages to avoid the lazy conclusion of parody. Twenty years reflect the band’s growth from and through Junior Kimbrough’s influencing blend of Hill Country blues. With Kimbrough finding fame decades later than that first waves to the west, The Black Keys’ reimagination could have descended into abstract simulacra, entirely detached from its starting point. It hasn’t.
Where it matters, the band is able to faithfully reinterpret the genre out of the gifts left behind by Kimbrough. And though today’s sound may lose some of the steady ringing that gave ‘Coal Black Mattie’ its original flavour, it pays off on the likes of ‘Poor Boy a Long Way from Home’ and ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights.’ Don’t be mislead by the title; inevitably, modern production would have struggled to slow down enough for the sparse, gravely drones of true Delta blues. Instead, born of a jam session with Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton (known for their work with R.L. Burnside and Kimbrough) at the end of the last album, it is the electric twang of Hill Country that keeps things lively and fresh.
As Dan Auerbach (guitar, vox) told NME: “We just recorded this stuff for fun. We never even thought about it as being an album.”
And so, the decision to lead with ‘Crawling Kingsnake’ makes sense. Where the song may have grown out of the Mississippi Delta, it found itself in subsequent covers, eventually resting with The Doors on L.A. Woman in 1971. Such dynamism gives the Black Keys space to move things around to suit their range. Likewise, the record includes a version of ‘Do the Rump’, revitalised by the band since they first covered it 20 years ago. Delta Kream gives the Black Keys room to improvise and play around with their origin story. What else but blues would be so accommodating?
The collection works well. The Ohio boys clearly enjoy playing the songs that inspired their brand in the early days. ‘Stay All Night’ provides the clearest window into what the record has managed, with the band having recorded a markedly different version in 2007 for Waxploitation. It seems to signpost: here we are in 2021, still playing these songs together, still growing in one way or the other. Delta Kream, then, is a meeting of worlds between past and present. ‘Digging around roots’ has something broader to say about the passing of time.
Much more than a blues tribute act looking to capitalise on some passing fad, The Black Keys celebrate their anniversary with brio, enthusiasm and perhaps a better sense of self.
Words by James Reynolds
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