It turns out that sometimes you can unring a bell. Look no further than Delta Kream, the new set of blues covers from The Black Keys, for proof of that.
Since first embarking on a lengthy, well-publicized collaboration with producer Danger Mouse more than a decade ago, it appeared that the band had moved past the Delta and country blues sound that first defined their aesthetic. In its stead, the Black Keys went broader, adding in elements of glam, pop-rock, and even hip-hop via the BlakRoc project. In the process, they made some really cool albums (El Camino is one of my favorite rock records of the past decade) and became something increasingly rare for a modern rock act: arena headliners.
In this context, Delta Kream is an intriguing album and creative decision. It’s a step away from those polished hooks and undeniably catchy rockers that have marked the back half of the band’s career, and instead a pivot back to its early years as straightforward blues-rock revivalists. Trying to channel your past dynamic is a tricky proposition; look at Aerosmith’s Honkin’ on Bobo for proof of how hard it is to revisit your roots without embarrassing yourself.
That’s what makes Delta Kream such a worthwhile release. The record doesn’t play like a band struggling to rejuvenate itself or attempting to recapture that initial spark. It sounds like a duo completely at ease with itself, going back and jamming on the type of tunes that first inspired them to link up two decades ago.
That’s clear from the opening drum roll and slinky guitar lick on opener “Crawling Kingsnake.” The track itself lopes ahead with an easy, natural shuffle that underscores the ease and skill with which the group can slip back into performing this type of material again.
That feeling persists throughout the album. If you took out Kenny Brown’s dirty slide work, the spin on R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Boy a Long Way From Home” sounds like it could be a bonus track from the 2004 LP Rubber Factory. But while Delta Kream often feels like a lively trip down memory lane, it also reflects how the band has changed over the years.
The finest example of that is “Do the Romp.” The Black Keys covered the Junior Kimbrough cut once before, back in 2002 on The Big Come Up as “Do the Rump.” That version is frenetic, anchored by a big, fuzzy guitar riff. The new rendition is less rooted in nervous youthful energy and more of a confident, joyous exuberance. It’s boisterous, it’s fun, and it brings everything full-circle, serving as an ideal encapsulation of the past 20 years of The Black Keys.