I suspect the Black Keys would be very happy if every one of their albums from here on in was simply a variation on their latest, Delta Kream. It makes sense. Why strain and struggle to write and record original swampy blues-rock numbers where there are so many Junior Kimbrough songs just lying around out there, ripe and juicy and ready for the taking?
The Black Keys — comprised of guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney, and whoever they invite along to abet their crunching recklessness — reportedly recorded Delta Kream over the course of a couple afternoons, ripping through a handful of songs they know well, probably because they’ve studied them looking for secrets. The album is entirely covers of Mississippi blues tunes, half of them from Kimbrough’s beautifully raggedy songbook. Hell, there’s even a song the Black Keys took a pass at previously: “Do the Romp,” thick as molasses here, was included on their first full-length, The Big Come Up, as the stripped-to-the-bone “Do the Rump.” These ardent payers of tribute are who the Black Keys have been — or maybe wanted to be — from the beginning.
The bandmates’ evident satisfaction in what they’re playing makes Delta Kream as satisfying as well-seasoned stew on a wintery day. It also makes the album a little insular and nondescript. “Crawling Kingsnake,” first recorded by Big Joe Williams in the early nineteen-forties, is easy and rich, R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Boy a Long Way from Home,” is chewy and tight, and KImbrough’s “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” is a shuffling slab of bluesy goodness. Those admittedly imprecise descriptors can be shuffled freely among that trio of songs without sacrificing accuracy of observation, and every other track on the album fits into the same mold. It’s all good. Nothing approaches great by transcending the fealty of disciples’ tribute.
Of course, there’s no real reason for the Black Keys to stretch and strain to make Delta Kream something more than what it is. There are nine other full-length albums out there, spanning some twenty years, that offer plenty of proof that they can make grimy grandness any old time they want. Right now, they want to make the music that they, I’ll bet, most want to hear and most want to play. Let some other record stand as a creative triumph. Delta Kream can be a straightforward reminder that honest, committed playing of blues-laden rock sounds pretty damn good.