Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach surprises with pop record ‘Waiting on a Song’

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Dan Auerbach Waiting on a Song | Easy Eye Sound
Grade: B+

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Waiting on a Song sounds like an orange juice commercial, in practically every positive and negative sense of the phrase.

The second solo album from Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, set to release today, is plucky, but not overly bright, occasionally reminiscent of the Black Keys’ trademark style and held together by utterly excellent sound mixing. It is an at-times inspired, at-times disappointingly light-hearted new release from half of the most influential duo of garage rock’s second wave. Ultimately, the only clash in the album is the discrepancy between listeners’ expectations and the album’s actual sound.

The album begins with its titular song, which from its very first note — a high, ringing bell tone that may or may not be a glockenspiel — cues listeners in to the fact that this is wholly unlike anything Auerbach has previously produced. It will be a surprising divergence to those expecting something similar to Auerbach’s first solo album — the meditative, throaty and resonant Keep It Hid (2009) — or anything like what he churns out with drummer Patrick Carney under the Black Keys, whose music is consistently danceable in a slow, boozy and sexy way.

Waiting on a Song is startlingly bright. It’s not energetic in the kind of way the Black Keys’ sound is, which is, in the best way possible, the sonic embodiment of a summer barbecue in a yellow-grassed backyard where they offer only PBR and Costco-brand tequila.

Rather, it’s got the same sort of vibrant, wholesome energy that comes from following a good night’s sleep with a healthy breakfast. If Waiting on a Song were a person, it would bike to work and probably eat a salad for lunch. It’s as though Gwyneth Paltrow decided to pick up a guitar and bust out some crunchy riffs. That kind of sound.

This divergence was intentional on Auerbach’s part. As Nonesuch Records notes on its website, Waiting on a Song is all about the Nashville sound. And Nashville, Auerbach’s and Carney’s home since 2010, showed up in full force: the album is covered with the fingerprints of such Tennessee heroes as Duane Eddy, Pat McLaughlin and Jerry Douglas, artists Auerbach himself considers “some of the greatest musicians that ever lived.”

The album does, indeed, roll out as smooth as Tennessee hills. The songs are decorated with clear, resounding bell tones, full-throated brass instruments and even a rhythm-keeping cowbell that does great work in “Malibu Man.” Each song is fairly distinct in its sound. “Never in My Wildest Dreams” unspools in a way that’s somehow twangy and syrupy at the same time; “King of a One Horse Town,” meanwhile, with its faint background choir and reverberating guitar, is dreamy and vaguely psychedelic.

Waiting on a Song is a short album — just under 33 minutes — and it’s one case in which an album’s brevity serves it well. Some of Auerbach’s lyrics tend toward the trite: in “Livin’ In Sin,” he croons, “Your touch is electrical / I’m so susceptible / We know we have always been livin’ in sin.” “Shine on Me” sports the weird lyrical gem, “I’m like a four leaf clover / ‘Cause I hide from everyone.” Economy of time demands punchy, meaningful lyrics; in this case, Auerbach barely lasts 12 rounds in the songwriting boxing ring.

Taste in music aside, Waiting on a Song is inarguably a brilliantly executed project. Every track has been handled with obvious care: the sound mixing is masterful, each note crisp, every instrument given an opportunity to shine. There is, too, a lovely progression within the album, wherein it unfolds so that its back half is clearly darker than its front half, but in such a way that the evolution is not noticeable until it’s too late.

Waiting on a Song is a musical twist on the old cooking lesson about frogs and hot water: submerge a listener in sound, and they won’t recognize its changes until their head is already bobbing away. The album’s difference from Auerbach’s previous work is certainly surprising, but it is well worth a listen for Black Keys fans and audiophiles alike, if for no reason other than the supreme quality of its production and care.

Contact Sarah Coduto at [email protected].