Since starting The Black Keys with drummer Patrick Carney in 2001, Dan Auerbach has made a career out of making old sounds cool again. That’s not intended to damn with faint praise; by following the lead of fellow garage rock revivalists like The White Stripes and The Strokes, the Akron, OH, pair have done more to keep capital-R Rock and Roll relevant in the 21st century than most bands of their stature or inclinations and certainly with as much or more consistency than anyone not named Jack White.
Still, though. Auerbach’s come a long way from his days of banging out records like Rubber Factory in an actual tire factory. In the years since the Keys’ commercial breakthrough in 2010, he’s moved to Nashville, produced Ray LaMontagne and Lana Del Ray, and won almost as many Grammys as he has fingers. He’s also opened his own recording studio and, with the release of Waiting on a Song, launched his own label imprint through Nonesuch.
As a thesis statement for Auerbach’s new Easy Eye Sound, the record upholds his continued deference to the past, as well as his appreciation for the glittering resources not afforded to him during those lean Akron days. The record’s trim, slickly produced collection of ’70s-style singer-songwriter tunes gathers together a list of collaborators befitting someone with Auerbach’s level of clout, including folk legend John Prine, Dire Straits virtuoso Mark Knopfler, and venerable rockabilly star Duane Eddy.
These undeniably talented musicians bring their own brightness to the best parts of Auerbach’s newest work; Knopfler’s guitar adds a stomp-along strum to highlight “Shine on Me” while Eddy’s trademark twang infuses “King of a One Horse Town” with a sense of aw-shucks melancholy usually reserved for a Harry Nilsson song. Auerbach himself also leans ably into this new era of genre-mining, adopting a country croon on opener (and Prine co-creation) “Waiting on a Song” that, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear belonged to M. Ward.
Auerbach’s taste in collaborators (as well as his knack for casting established genres in new, commercially relevant light) will serve him well as a producer and label boss. On Waiting on a Song, though, these twin tendencies often make Auerbach seems like someone trying to playact his way back to the club of ’70s Nashville street cred. It’s hard to hear a dude who’s won nine Grammys sing lines like “could’ve made it but I messed around/ I’m a loser with a rusty crown” (or watch him release an album on 8-track in 2017) and properly suspend your disbelief.
Although it features a few radio-ready summer moments, Waiting on a Song never quite rises to the heights reached by its famous collaborators or canon-approved inspirations. Part of the issue is timing; Auerbach’s singer-songwriter turn comes late in the genre’s most recent resurgence and suffers by comparison; he isn’t earnest enough to match Natalie Prass, effervescent enough to trade tunes with Mac DeMarco, or archly self-aware enough to give Father John Misty a serious challenge.
Easy Eye Sound will undoubtedly be home to great records one day; Auerbach is too talented a guy with too keen an ear to bet otherwise. However, this initial release isn’t one of them; instead, it’s an okay album that will please fans when the weather’s warm while also making them look forward to the day when Auerbach reconnects to his own roots instead of someone else’s.
Essential Tracks: “Shine on Me”, “King of a One Horse Town”, and “Malibu Man”