Release Date: Sep 4, 2015
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Cut swiftly -- no more than two weeks at three different studios spread coast to coast -- the Arcs' 2015 debut Yours, Dreamily does bear a spontaneous air, a record that enjoys its hazy detours as much as its sturdy foundations. This blend of airy sonic swirls and R&B-influenced rock formalism feels familiar, perhaps because it is the aesthetic that's driven Arcs leader Dan Auerbach during the heady mid-career heyday of his main gig, the Black Keys. Once the Ohio garage blues duo hooked up with producer Danger Mouse for 2008's Attack & Release, the Black Keys incorporated impressionistic soundscapes to their guitar growl but Yours, Dreamily flips the equation, favoring feel over grind.
"I'm old enough to know the game/But pushing buttons now is all that keeps me sane," Dan Auerbach sings in "Outta My Mind," the opening jolt on this strange, seductive album, through a spooky melange of spaghetti-Western guitars, funk drumming and oily reverb. The first line is plain enough: Auerbach, 36, has been a rock star for more than a third of his life, as the singer-guitarist-songwriter of the modern-blues duo the Black Keys. The second explains why Auerbach — a side-project fiend, with his own Nashville studio, who's produced records for acts like Dr.
Dan Auerbach’s “new” group isn’t new at all. A collection of longtime “musical compadres”, the Black Keys frontman has worked with the Arcs when he produced Dr John and Lana Del Rey, and there’s a familial feel to this album. Auerbach has talked about how this isn’t a solo project, and indeed, unlike his bonafide solo effort Keep It Hid (2009), Yours, Dreamily moves away from bluesy rock’n’roll.
Earlier this year, a shoulder injury to The Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney put paid to a number of upcoming shows, and between production duties for other artists, partner Dan Auerbach probably found himself with a little more free time than usual. And now, a collaboration with mates – including The Shins’ Richard Swift, plus the more recent addition of an all-female mariachi band – collated from years in the studio and touring has resulted in a new band, The Arcs, releasing a debut album in the wake of his main band’s absence. This isn’t Auerbach’s first venture outside The Black Keys though: that came with a solo album released in 2009, Keep It Hid, but Yours, Dreamily is firmly a band effort.
The definable purpose of side projects is oft debated. It would seem this sort of musical enterprise is, at least generally, an opportunity for an artist to branch out from his/her main band’s aesthetic. Musicians write plenty of songs but drop them off records because they don’t add to the level of cohesion necessary for a consistent release. If this is a definition we can all agree on, then Dan Auerbach’s album with The Arcs falls outside the norm.
While he's best known as one half of the Black Keys, Dan Auerbach's built himself quite a resume of extracurricular actives in the past few years, largely behind the boards. He's produced for artists including Ray LaMontagne and New Orleans piano legend Dr. John, and helped give Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence its sweeping, cinematic sheen.With his latest side-project the Arcs, the guitarist and vocalist steps back into the spotlight, recruiting Truth and Soul Records founder Leon Michels, Black Keys touring bassist Richard Swift, Menahan Street Band member Homer Steinweiss, Amy Winehouse collaborator Nick Movshon, and guitarist Kenny Vaughan.
Not a solo record as such, Yours, Dreamily by the Arcs is a side project fronted by Dan Auerbach, on hiatus from the Black Keys. Given Auerbach’s varied extramural activities (producing Dr John and Lana Del Rey, for two), it’s little surprise to find Auerbach teaming up with a female mariachi vocal troupe and a half-dozen pivotal musician friends, not to radically subvert his day job, but to tinker groovily with its edges. Catchy headline songs such as Outta My Mind fit the Black Keys template almost exactly, but the album’s frequent sampled and pasted interludes, its wiggy organ and woozy country-soul atmosphere all build up a sense of sepia-tinted playfulness that sidesteps the Black Keys’ usual growl and punch.
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.
Having a side project in music isn’t anything new these days. It can help stimulate when feeling confined and it gives an outlet for songs that don’t fit with the parent band’s style or mission statement. Rostam Batmanglij has Discovery, Michael Shuman has Mini Mansions, Faris Badwan has Cat’s Eyes, Bowie had Tin Machine and Jack White has The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.
As frontman of The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach long ago proved he had the chops to more than match the many rock and soul influences that seemed to form that duo’s being. But therein, with drummer Patrick Carney, the magic came from the knowledge that things could always go wrong, that the fit was ramshackle, that they were at least hungry. Auerbach’s first offshoot (save for sterling production work with Dr John and smaller bands) have boasted of making a record more psychedelic, more “out there” than The Black Keys.
The output of the majority of “supergroups” can be summed up with “cool idea, so-so execution. ” Those that succeed end up actually writing, and aren’t just satisfied by the idea of talented people in proximity to one another. The Arcs most assuredly succeed on “Yours, Dreamily,” offering the answer to a question you didn’t even know you wanted answered: How would Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys; Richard Swift of the Shins and a touring member of the Black Keys; Homer Steinweiss and Nic Movshon of soul revivalists the Dap-Kings; and El Michels Affair leader Leon Michels, founder of Truth&Soul Records, sound if you put them all together? Like one of the world’s baddest yet dreamiest garage-soul bands — that’s what.
A few years ago, British rock journalist Simon Reynolds published an excellent book called Retromania, in which he explored the increasing proliferation of backwards-looking pop music at the expense of new sounds. Mind you, this book was published before the Black Keys’ mainstream arrival. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys is the consummate retromaniac.
As well his day-job with The Black Keys and lending a masterly retro touch to Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence last year, Dan Auerbach has somehow found time to form The Arcs. However on the evidence of Yours, Dreamily he shouldn’t spread himself so thinly; it can’t decide whether it’s a soul/funk record or a homage to 70’s rock and ends up a mishmash of both. He also seems to reference his fraught working relationship with Del Rey several times, most archly on “Searching The Blue”, whose lyrics could be an ironic take on “Video Games” (‘You never had a need for anyone, anyone but you.’), which feels facile compared to debut single “Stay In My Corner”, which boded so well for the album.
The Upshot: Rock/Americana supergroup with solid intentions if somewhat spotty execution. A supergroup of sorts, the Arcs have recorded a debut disc that’s a hodgepodge of sorts, the result of several like-minded individuals all venting their insurgent interests. Comprising Dan Auerbach, Leon Michels, Richard Swift, Homer Steinweiss, Nick Movshon, Kenny Vaughan, and Mariachi Flor de Toloache, the band draws from the members’ mutual admiration and concerted input, but while it’s an admirable first attempt, it never quite gels into anything of enduring interest.