By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
The Black Keys are moving up the music business food chain, which means bigger management and a bigger record label that will service its fourth record, coming in late summer. But being nice, appreciative Midwestern boys, the Firestone grads have given their former label a parting gift in Chulahoma, a six-track EP of tunes by heralded and influential Mississippi bluesman and fellow Fat Possum artist Junior Kimbrough.
The guitarist, who released his first album at age 62 and died in 1998 at 67, became a cult star opening for Iggy Pop and getting visits at Junior’s, his juke joint in Chulahoma, Miss., from famous folks including members of U2, Sonic Youth and the Rolling Stones.
Kimbrough is a hero of Black Keys guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach, who as a teenager made a failed pilgrimage to Mississippi in hopes of meeting him.
The band covered Kimbrough’s Do the Rump on The Big Come Up and his Everywhere I Go on Thickfreakness. Further influence can be heard in Auerbach’s incorporation of Kimbrough’s fuzz-drenched open-string drone into his playing.
The disc has a relaxed feel. Drummer Pat Carney keeps the grooves simple, while Auerbach seizes the opportunity to stretch out on the fretboard a bit more than on the band’s own recordings. The six songs span Kimbrough’s six-album recording career, and though the band doesn’t do anything radical to the songs, it does manage to be respectful while putting its own stamp on the tunes.
The originally jaunty Meet Me in the City is slowed down and given a heavy backbeat and a psychedelic guitar solo coda. Have Mercy on Me also gets the heavy blues treatment with bubbling percussion, ethereal keyboards and another lengthy solo from Auerbach.
At an economical 28 minutes, Chulahoma hangs around just long enough for listeners to notice that all the songs are played at about the same hypnotic tempo, but not long enough to be annoyed by the fact. And if a few of the Black Keys’ younger fans find themselves in the blues section of Best Buy spending their parents’ cash on You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough or his Sad Days Lonely Nights (hint, hint), then Chulahoma has exceeded its job as a tribute to one of the band’s influences.