Dan Auerbach, the singer-guitarist for the Akron, Ohio-based rootsy blues-rock duo The Black Keys, broadens his style on his new solo album to include folk, country and even psychedelic elements.
Auerbach commences Keep It Hid by emphasizing the solo aspect, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing plaintively about how his troubles weigh a ton. At age 29, Auerbach sounds as though the troubles he's seen are considerable and hang heavily upon his slender shoulders. But then, when you steep yourself in the electric blues, that posture comes naturally.
The thing about Auerbach is that he doesn't wallow in either misery or menace — he doesn't overdo the drama inherent in the musical choices he makes. Where other performers might strive for authenticity in the form of anguished cries and tremulous guitar solos, Auerbach takes a different tack. He approaches a song such as "Heartbroken, in Disrepair" with a lusty energy, as though the subject matter of unhappiness exhilarates him — he gets off on the performance of heartbrokenness.
This album also permits Auerbach to dial down the volume that's usually cranked up on his Black Keys albums. The result is a voice with what is perhaps a limited range, but that is nonetheless expressive. It's all about creating intimacy — drawing you in with artfully tentative vocals that sound as though he's working out the words as he figures out the guitar chords.
Of course, you can't take the blues-rocker out of the music entirely. The song "Goin' Home" builds, after three-and-a-half minutes, to a guitar-and-drum rave-up. And on the terrific song "My Last Mistake," Auerbach channels 1960s bands like Canned Heat and The Troggs while writing a lyric that shows him to be very much a contemporary fellow, sensitive to the needs of his loved one without being a wimp about it.
Coming after the thick, meaty, grunginess of the last Black Keys album, Attack & Release, this Auerbach solo album sounds like a clearing of the throat and mind. You don't need to know that he's usually half of a loud, thrashing, vehement music act to appreciate the floating, airy atmosphere of Keep It Hid.
Auerbach has said he wanted this album to "flow like scenes in a movie." I think he's succeeded; he's created not a Black Keys film noir, but his own kind of film — a melodrama with mellow humor, a mood piece about a hero who feels most comfortable delivering monologues in the dark, sitting on the side of a motel bed, looking out at a cold parking lot and a warm, full moon.