Hanni El Khatib captures an image with his music. A Los Angeles garage rocker with only a handful of albums to his name, the man’s music is for the outlaws. His anthemic hell-raisers speak of hellholes and knife fights; his characters aren’t afraid of the grit in their world and happily embrace it. The world of El Khatib’s music is dressed in leather jackets and electric guitars, its fights are fought with blues-licks and stilettos. They dance to the Cramps and duel to John Lee Hooker.
Not that El Khatib isn’t a stranger to balladry or pop bliss. “Wait. Wait. Wait.” and “Penny” are as worth mentioning as his notoriously dirty cover of Sam Theard’s 1931 “You Rascal You.” He can cry over the acoustic guitar and sing over the most upbeat of synthesizers.
Will the Guns Come Out (2011)
Hanni El Khatib’s debut album rolls through the rock and roll of the 1960s garage scene with the fire of the White Stripes’-inspired revival. The distorted hand-clapper “Will the Guns Come Out” opens the album with El Khatib singing into a warped microphone. Meanwhile, other songs find themselves drenched in reverb as El Khatib fiddles with blues-scales and rock-stompers. He uses his guitar to scratch and bend, tremolo and whammy his way through guitar solos – like the noisy finale to “Fuck it. You Win” or the licks of “You Rascal You.” He dabbles in other styles as well, with ’60s R&B on “Dead Wrong” and troubadour heartbreak on “Wait. Wait. Wait.” Rounded out with acoustic rockers like “Come Alive” and an Elvis Presley cover (“Heartbreak Hotel” – complete with a banjo!), Will the Guns Come Out introduced El Khatib as an outlaw’s rocker; the biker gang’s answer to bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys.
Key Songs: “Fuck It. You Win,” “Wait. Wait. Wait.,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “You Rascal You”
Head in the Dirt (2013)
Will the Guns Come Out’s follow-up was definitely more polished. Produced by Dan Auerbach, Head in the Dirt trades the street-wise attitude from Will the Guns Come Out for a more straightforward rock record. El Khatib dishes out plenty of guitar riffs (“Family”) and psychedelia-infused pop rock (“Skinny Little Girl”). Glaringly, El Khatib also fully embraces synthesizers – something totally alien to Will the Guns Come Out – on lead single “Penny,” whose bass-line jumps through the track as synthesizers dance over the top. As cheesy as it is, its hooks are delightfully catchy. The album is summed up in “House of Fire,” a bluesy track that builds into a huge finale with an undeniable energy.
Key Songs: “Family,” “Penny,” “Can’t Win ‘Em All,” “Pay No Mind” and “House of Fire”
If Head in the Dirt was the work of a restless man taming his sound, Moonlight is the follow-up of a man who’s found what he wants and is too satiated to move on. El Khatib sifts through a number of rockers with the same reverbed vocals and chord play as before. There’s none of the standout burners from before and the swagger’s mostly resigned, but a few tracks bleed through. The title track boasts that El Khatib strut from before, and El Khatib follows Auerbach into the land of psychedelic epics in “Mexico,” spinning up an outlaw’s tale south of the border with blistering expanses and progression.
Key Songs: “Moonlight,” “Mexico” and “Home”
During the recording sessions for Moonlight, Hanni El Khatib began collaborating with hip-hop artists like Freddie Gibbs and the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. Those mashups are well worth checking out, even though they don’t officially appear in the HEK discography.