‘Delta Kream’ is The Black Keys’ love letter to their blues beginnings

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

If there’s one thing The Black Keys can proudly say they have, it’s authenticity. Throughout the band’s lengthy career, duo Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have developed a unique, stripped-down rock formula that has amassed them an ever-growing fanbase. But everyone has to start somewhere. Released May 14, The Black Keys’ latest album Delta Kream is a cover album of hill country blues songs from the Mississippi Delta that inspired the duo back when The Black Keys was just a fleeting dream on the horizon. Featuring covers of Mississippi Fred McDowell, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough among others all quintessential Delta blues musicians Delta Kream finds the Black Keys confidently in their element.

Despite being a stark departure in sound from the duo’s last heavy-arena rock album, Let’s Rock, Delta Kream is a kindred spirit to the rest of the Black Keys’ discography. The band is no stranger to blues, and this pays off on the album, as it sounds like much of its earlier work but with more overtly traditional blues tones.

The initial drumbeat on the first song, “Crawling Kingsnake,” is misleading at first, resembling an intro to what could have been any standard Black Keys song. But within 5 seconds, the John Lee Hooker song, famously covered by the Doors, is transformed by Auerbach and Carney into a melodic, perfectly twangy composition with a captivating rhythm. Auerbach even treats listeners to a soulful solo, setting the mood for the rest of the album.

The whole album is chock full of deep songs brimming with unbridled emotion. The music comes naturally to the duo, even if the songs don’t quite apply to them.“Stay All Night” and “Come on and Go with Me” have slow buildups that settle into a beat wavering back and forth with the slide guitar. Carney’s drums are excellent throughout the album, providing a confident beat that demands its own attention on each track while simultaneously oscillating with the background when necessary. Auerbach’s voice isn’t anything remotely close to the original blues singers, but it brings the songs into modernity without sacrificing the uniqueness of the songs. On a few songs, Auerbach makes more of an effort to take on a deeper, twangier tone, but it still sounds unmistakably like him. Regardless, those songs fit in well with the mixed themes of yearning and nonchalance found on the album.

The most remarkable song on Delta Kream is “Do the Romp,” a version of Junior Kimbrough’s tune that the band also covered before on its debut, The Big Come Up. The first version, titled “Do the Rump,” feels more raw and jaggedy than the newer, more sophisticated rendition on Delta Kream. It’s a testament to how far the band has come in finding and mastering their own distinct groove. The comfort the duo feels all throughout the album jumps out especially on this song. From the swagger of “Walk with Me” to the sludgy, thumping nature of “Mellow Peaches,” each song maintains a level of composure while bringing a different aspect of blues culture to the table.

Down to the name, Delta Kream is drenched in the memory of the pioneering hill country blues musicians that breathed new life into an age-old genre. The Black Keys are clearly having a great time cranking out the jangly jams of their musical forefathers, adding some extra polish and fine-tuning to the latest leg of their blues journey. Throughout the album, the band’s garage-rock mastery translates smoothly to the country-tinged songs, with the duo settling into a calmer, but more unrestrained era in their lives. In fact, Delta Kream was recorded “in about 10 hours” over two afternoons, and it shows in the album’s effortlessness and cohesive trail of sound. Longtime fans of The Black Keys will enjoy the return to the band’s literal roots, showing again that the band’s dedication to the essentials of its remarkable sound has served them well.

Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected]. Tweet her at @callmepbj.