It’s a pleasure to report that the posthumous Tony Joe White release, Smoke From the Chimney is just as great as it sounded on paper. Better, even.
Because what the Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach has done is take some of Tony Joe’s home recordings and flesh them out with the help of veteran Nashville studio musicians. This kind of thing can go a few ways. One is that the youthful producer is intimidated by reworking the raw material of someone he or she greatly admires and they aren’t bold enough to make the record they could make. Another is that the producer overshadows his idol with slick techniques that add little to what’s already on tape.
I’m happy to say that Smoke From the Chimney falls into neither of these perilous pits. Dan Auerbach turned out to be the perfect guy to work on this project, and a large part of the reason is that he really likes Tony Joe White’s music. White has gone unrecognized for too long as one of our greatest American songwriters, a performer who can reasonably be argued, at various times, to be a country artist, or a blues artist, or a rock artist. Tony Joe White should be as revered as Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, or brisket.
“Yeah, there’s that sound,” Auerbach said of White’s music in a recent interview for NPR. “It’s like the perfect music to me. Comes out of New Orleans, and is the melting pot. Usually when people have so much feel, they’re not as good at writing. And a lot of times people are really good at writing and don’t necessarily have the greatest feel, but he just had both in spades and he had the electric guitar sound, and the acoustic sound.”
Auerbach’s arrangements emphasize the best facet of each song. These are nine songs that White wrote and recorded demos on that didn’t make it to one of his own albums or to the albums of artists who he thought might record them. White let these songs sit there on tape, waiting to be discovered. The songs on Smoke From the Chimney aren’t perfect, but they are perfectly Tony Joe White. Auerbach had wanted to record with White since meeting him at a music festival in 2009, and White’s son, Jody, had tried to set up the sessions, but it never worked out as White was reluctant to leave his own studio and home base. One artist who White recorded and wrote with quite a bit was Shelby Lynne, and she reports working on songs, along with a case of beer, in White’s backyard. And that’s how this record sounds: relaxed, comfortable, and pure.
Delta Kream, the newest album by Dan Auerbach and bandmate Patrick Carney, is also a relaxed affair, basically the result of 10 hours worth of studio jamming by the two Black Keys along with bassist Eric Deaton, best known for his work with Junior Kimbrough, and Kenny Brown, who played guitar with R.L. Burnside. Burnside and Kimbrough wrote most of the songs on the album, and The Black Keys have a long history with Kimbrough’s work, having recorded many of his songs on their album Chulahoma.
Burnside and Kimbrough are both Missisippi country blues practitioners, and both enjoyed their greatest success as artists recording for the Fat Possum label in the 90s, which was a formative point in Auerbarch and Carney’s music development, leading them towards a blues sound that shows the influences of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker overlaid with a drone-based blues from deep in the Mississipi delta.
Delta Kream is a blues jam cover album, the kind of thing The Rolling Stones wanted to do, but didn’t officially get around to until twenty-some albums in. Auerbach and the other musicians assembled casually and without much fanfare for the recording. They didn’t work out arrangements much beforehand, nor did they rehearse. It’s a blues fan’s album, and as one of the latest incarnations of the white boys who rock out on electric blues trope, The Black Keys are creating a signpost for the kind of youngsters they were–kids who got a shot of the blues and could never shake the way it made them feel or the associations it brought with it.