Monday, May 20, 2013

Hanni El Khatib Digs Deep In The Dirt

Hanni El Khatib
It has been a few years since the Hanni El Khatib had cobbled together enough tracks to put out an album. With the help of producer Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), he rolled up his sleeves and finally did it. Head In The Dirt punks up Americana with a little more fullness, smoothness, and variety.

While some reviewers think of his material as a bit of schtick, it's only because they haven't seen the sometimes guileless but genuine musician lay down some chords in person. Khatib isn't an act. The San Francisco-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has an obsession with Americana, circa 50s and 60s.

Head In The Dirt digs deep into punked up and stripped down rock. 

As the former creative director for a skateboard fashion line, Khatib has thrown himself all into his music. And sometimes that confuses people, who think the stories he sings about are necessarily about him.

Maybe that's even more true of Head In The Dirt compared to other outings. The sophomore album is clearly crafted as opposed to someone with his head firmly planted in the past. For me, that's perfectly fine. If there was one thing that was holding Khatib back from a broader audience, it was the singularity of his original sound.

On Head In The Dirt, Khatib breaks out of the rut that dominated his performances and tries on a smoother cool in between his usual grit and wildness. Family makes the case well enough. The video is a whacked out Japanese motorcycle fantasy that shows off how much Khatib thinks he missed by being born a couple of decades too late.

The campy naivety and reckless abandon of the track illustrates how Khatib isn't trying to make himself a character as much as he wants to sing about characters from a glorified and glamorized cinematic perception of two very cool decades. He blends in some real life experiences too, making it a mystery.

All along, Khatib has said he isn't interested in creating concept music as much as he likes to create a mood or a feeling. Sometimes it's wild. Other times it's exciting. But all the time it's simple and classic.

The title track, Head In The Dirt, leads off with all the expectant fuzz and funk you might expect. But by the time you break into the third track, Skinny Little Girl, it becomes much more clear that Khatib wants to expand his repertoire. The track is a more relaxed attempt at storytelling.

He used a similarly relaxed harmonic on Penny, which not only shows that Khatib can lay down solid lyrics but also how much influence The Black Keys have been since they've toured together. Khatib is clearly the kind of opener they want, even if we lean toward his more fiery work.

On Head In The Dirt, those type of powerful and primal step tracks are far and few between. Even the few that exist are tamer then pervious outings. Check out Save Me, Sinking In The Sand, and Nobody Move. House Of Fire is more restrained too, but Khatib comes across as if it takes a real effort to keep the lid on it.

Head In The Dirt By Khatib Hurts 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The first time I covered Khatib a few years ago, I made a note of mentioning that he is an artist by nature. Head In The Dirt proves Khatib still is, even if Auerbach seems to be whispering in his ear the whole time. On the plus side, the 11-track album breaks up Khatib's previous singular pace even if it might not be as raw as some fans have come to expect. It still rocks.

Head in the Dirt by Hanni El Khatib is available on Amazon. You can also order the album from Barnes & Noble or download it from iTunes. Khatib has a full touring schedule through the summer. For show listings and upcoming concerts, visit his Facebook page.
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