Like a crisp desert highway baked in a New Mexico sun, or a freshly tapped draft with just a little too much head, Dan Auerbach has a natural aura to him. His records always feature the same, smoky vocals and growling guitars. His production work – ranging from highwayman garage rock like Hanni El-Khatib to neo-Sinatra crooner Lana Del Rey – is usually strung together in the same tones: the guitars flirt between blues and curdled soul, the backdrop slurs a romantic tune and there’s the finer touches of psychedelic spins and surf rock crackle to tie it all together.
And the Arcs is an Auerbach project through and through. From the first crunched guitar riff of “Out of My Mind” to “Searching for Blue’s” final smoker’s croon, Yours, Dreamily scratches off all of Auerbach-isms with gusto. But Auerbach spends most of this Black Keys side project trying something new – at least in concept. There’s more than just the usual trifecta; Patrick Carney’s sloppy sticks are replaced by Dap-King Homer Steinweiss, and Danger Mouse’s usual psychedelic fair is replaced by a band of Shins veterans, Back to Black contributors and Menahan Street brass.
If Yours, Dreamily proves anything, though, it’s that Auerbach is pretty set to one sound, whether it comes across as scorched earth rock or psychedelic hue. There’s still little sense to the lyrics beyond biker rock ballads, and Auerbach still regularly cranks fuzz into his vision of Nashville soul. The newcomers add their own flavors to Yours, Dreamily, like Leon Michel’s saxophone spearhead on “Velvet Ditch’s” coda and Steinweiss’s eased groove on “Chain of Love,” but Yours, Dreamily can’t shake the feeling that, with just a pinch of Danger Mouse, it’d be a collection of Turn Blue deep cuts.
But an(other) album of grease fire garage soul is something Auerbach does well. The guitars fuzz when they need to and crackle when they don’t. The drums and bass set their rhythm and play the guide to Auerbach, Michel and the Shins’ Richard Swift, who noodle out a delicious if not a little fatigued desert soul. It’s an aesthetic of jean jackets, Las Vegas and plastic guitars, and it’s an aesthetic Auerbach’s lead channels confidently.
So, while Yours, Dreamily probably won’t hook anybody who already isn’t sold on Auerbach’s other projects, it’ll be another 13 tracks for those who love that dusty falsetto. The Arcs sound like modern Black Keys more indebted to the Alabama Shakes than Danger Mouse; some would be right in writing Yours, Dreamily off as a set of Black Keys B-cuts. But for others, it might be exactly what we wanted out of our favorite rock and roll cowboy gone soul.
If there’s anything that’s apparent about Dan Auerbach, it’s his need to be creating music, whether as a musician, a producer, or both. The Black Keys seem to be at a standstill. Though Patrick Carney stated as far back as a year ago that the duo was ready to start recording their next album, those projections don’t seem to have found fruition, and what to do when your main project is taking a breather? Well, for Dan, the answer is start another band.
Teaming on production with Leon Michels of Truth & Soul Records fame, Dan has assembled a superteam of close friends from his years of playing, the roles switching between different members with each track. The primary players through the whole album are Auerbach on guitars and vocals, Michels on guitars and horns, and Richard Swift, touring bassist for the Keys, on drums. Plenty of others appear on the album in different roles, making The Arcs a “band” in the loosest sense. It’s easy to see how this project was initially a solo endeavor by Auerbach, though he insists that the other musicians had plenty of input on the tracks that are presented.
The vinyl itself isn’t particularly hardy; it’s not 200 or 180-gram, but it is presented in a top notch plastic lined inner sleeve, which is more than can be said about the Keys’ last album, Turn Blue. (I’m still a little upset about that release – you heavily market the vinyl in the press and you give us subpar materials? We’re already paying for the vinyl in 2015; I’ll pay $5 more to get a nice inner sleeve.) You also receive a code for the mp3s and a double sided poster with the track listing, particularly helpful on an album like this to track who’s playing on which song and which piece they contributed.
Yours, Dreamily is a very apt title for the album. It feels like a long dream, a haze with some details that feel far off and others that are incredibly sharp. Each track captures a different essence and they create a relaxing album to listen to. There are a few jams (“Outta My Mind” and “The Arc” come to mind) but even they have a softer mix to them that fits right in with the mood. This is clearly a labor of love. Auerbach’s genius continues to show through on an album filled with creativity. The bass lines are so well developed, something I’ve always missed on the Keys’ albums. The six-string guitars don’t really drive the action, but that’s my kind of ride. If it’s not yours, be warned.
Personal favorites are “Cold Companion,” “The Arc” and “Velvet Ditch.” Individually, they may be my favorite songs I’ve heard all year, period. The biggest misstep is “Come And Go,” the only song on the album that crosses the line from instrumentally complex to a complete mess. It’s a shame it made the cut to the album, because I can’t score this album as high as I’d like because of it.
If you enjoy an older style of rock, but don’t enjoy the Black Keys all that much, I’d still recommend this album. The Arcs bridge the gap of classic and modern seamlessly, in large part to Dan and Leon’s production work. If it were up to me, Danger Mouse wouldn’t be a part of the picture on the next Keys album. This is Dan Auerbach at his creative height, unfettered by sales expectations and any kind of industry trend that he and Carney have had to worry about, and that creates an album that’s an absolute joy to drop the needle on. This album has a few tracks that sort of blend in the background, but overall it’s a strong first outing, and I hope it’s not the last.
Yours, Dreamily is out now courtesy of Nonesuch Records.