Dan Auerbach has taken a break from the Black Keys, but in many ways, he still is the Black Keys. He carries his voice, his impulses, and his concerns into every project he takes up, whether that’s last year’s Turn Blue, with longtime partner in crime Patrick Carney, or Ultraviolence, the second Lana Del Rey LP that flourished under his production. Auerbach’s latest assembly sees him collaborating with a good deal more musicians than usual. For his first album with the Arcs, he’s roped in Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss, bassist and Mark Ronson collaborator Nick Movshon (who also played bass on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” a decade ago), singer/songwriter and Shins player Richard Swift, and saxophonist Leon Michels. Huge records have come out of the universe inscribed by this crew, and the Arcs’ debut, Yours, Dreamily, sounds about as put-together and professional as they come.
It also sounds like an Auerbach record; he’s at the top of the masthead here, and he calls the shots, for better or worse. He sings the way he always has, with a pale and slippery tint of the blues, full-throated, grainy, and wry. His guitar solos ring prickly and overdriven, still favoring bulk over shine. Certain arrangements on Yours, Dreamily, like the first licks of lead guitar on “Outta My Mind”, could be Black Keys songs done up with a fuller band and tighter production. The Arcs’ field of sound runs deeper than the Black Keys’, but the adventures Auerbach imagines in that new space tend to tap out at lines like “maybe we could take too much and start a fight.” “All you gotta do is be a little wild,” he sings on “Nature’s Child”, and he really does mean a little.
While Turn Blue felt like a more or less direct depository for Auerbach’s internal narrative (he worked through the dregs of a divorce on the frets), Yours, Dreamily sees his lyrics take on new, out-of-body narratives. “Outta My Mind” might well be a reflection on his own success in a harrowing industry (“outta my mind, but I made it,” he boasts at the chorus), but “Pistol” sees him dodging bullets in country western territory, and “Rosie (Ooh La La)” adopts the story of a soldier sent away to war, scrawling love letters to his girlfriend back home. As rootsy subject material, that’s been done plenty and often better, but Auerbach eats up lines like “war is hell, but in my mind I’m with you dear” with the same gusto he drawls out his own personal wars.
As capable and fun as it is, Yours, Dreamily can’t help but fade in the shadow of another band who’s reworked the blues to their liking this year. The Arcs almost feel like a footnote to the Alabama Shakes, who have been spouting songs from the excellent Sound & Color at festivals around the world this summer. Though it takes a few distinct turns, like the smoky moaning and groaning of “Come and Go”, Yours, Dreamily doesn’t house as much personality or nuance as the Shakes. All the players are there, but they’re following Auerbach, who might be better at texturing an album than he is at giving it narrative thrust.
For Black Keys diehards, the Arcs will open a path out of the grit and grime that the rock duo have made their home. It’s great to learn just how warm and natural Auerbach’s voice sounds next to saxophone, piano, and loose sprinklings of upright bass. Yours, Dreamily is generous with its color and patterning, even if it won’t launch any hits on par with “Gold on the Ceiling”. Auerbach got the chance to dial down the tempo and warm up the mood with his friends, and if this side gig doesn’t eclipse his main one, at least it has him flexing out of his mold.
Essential Tracks: “Outta My Mind”