The very notion of a solo album from Dan Auerbach, the singing, guitar-playing half of the Black Keys, is a curious one. The Black Keys, while certainly established as a blues-rock duo, could really go in any direction they pleased if Auerbach so desired. The only person he’d have to convince is Pat Carney, whose creative drumming over the course of the Black Keys discography suggests that the guy would be willing to get at least a little adventurous. Which leads one to conclude that Auerbach’s solo album is either some wild genre or multi-genre experiment that is totally unrepresentative of the Black Keys, or that the album is tremendously personal to him.
Well, I’m pleased to report that Auerbach hasn’t gone solo to explore some heretofore dormant love of trance or dance-punk or any other genre, nor is Keep It Hid an album of stark pleading and/or confessionals. It’s Americana through and through, and while the question of why Auerbach felt that he had to separate himself from the Black Keys to record Keep It Hid is never overtly answered, the album features enough subtle tweaks on Auerbach’s trademark sound to explain his decision to make this album on his own.
Of course, not every song on Keep It Hid would be even remotely at home on a Black Keys record. There is no place for Pat Carney’s harsh drums on the sweet, austere folk of “When the Night Comes,” and opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton.” In fact, Auerbach’s voice, which usually hovers somewhere near Jimi Hendrix’s bluesy growl, is considerably lighter throughout the gentler moments of Keep It Hid, landing surprisingly close to Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. Just as surprisingly, Auerbach wears it well, and I wouldn’t be shocked if future Auerbach work featured his ear for pastoral harmonies.
Generally though, Auerbach appears to be trying to find out how long one can maneuver within the world of psychedelic blues and soul without repeating oneself. Arriving right after “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” as if to assure the listener that this album won’t be an entirely bucolic, low-key affair, “I Want Some More” is an immediate highlight. The song is perhaps Keep It Hid‘s strongest showcase for Auerbach’s ability to capture the playful licentiousness of blue-dabbler and perennial whack-job, Captain Beefheart, while still retaining the grimy authenticity of his former label mates on Fat Possum Records. Similarly, the title track is a wonderfully demented slow-burner that would not be out of place on Tom Waits’ classic Bone Machine.
Yet, as is often the case with people who traffic in blues-rock, there are certainly times on Keep It Hid when Auerbach falls back on easy riffs and rote run-throughs of the twelve bar blues. “The Prowl,” for example, is by no means an unpleasant listen, but given the more exploratory nature of Auerbach’s other forays into the twelve bar blues, it comes off as a needless space filler. While we’re on the subject, “Street Walkin'” suffers from the same feeling of superfluity, but again, it’s a slight dip in an overall consistent record.
If the main goal of the solo album is to establish a certain degree of artistic autonomy, then Keep It Hid is a modest success. Auerbach shows himself to be more versatile than his tenure with the Black Keys has suggested, but does not stray far enough from his usual formula to make his fans nervous about the fate of the Black Keys. But then again, perhaps it’s not fair to keep weighing Keep It Hid against the Black Keys. Context free, it’s a solid album of psychedelic Americana, plain and simple.