For his latest LP as Night Beats, Danny Lee Blackwell has a crises of character and we’re all invited along for the ride. Jettisoning the semblance of a “band,” the record is just Blackwell with a litany of studio hit men and Dan Auerbach behind the boards, working the Night Beats’ previously gritty garage into a swaggering, glossy blues-soul belter in the mold of the Keys themselves. Seems that Dan Auerbach is rolodexing his way through the wealth of indie talent these days – working with garage-soul powerhouse Shannon Shaw and making over Sonny Smith into a proper gentleman. The production match-ups have been met with a mixed-bag of outcomes. In Shaw, Auerbach saw a performer who was often left masked by genre – a natural torch singer who needed a proper stage to shine from. With Smith, however, he stripped away much of the songwriter’s downtrodden charm, giving his record the feel of an expensive imitation that wrinkles in the wash while the rest of his catalog comes out crisp and clean every time.
Now as to what he’s done with Night Beats – its a split decision to be honest. I like quite a few of the tracks that Auerbach and Blackwell have done together. When the songs are full of sound and darkness and swinging for the rafters they shake out the psych-soul swirls of Blackwell’s past into the kind of stadium rock that works with a packed crowd and an over-zealous light show. On the other side of the same coin, though, when the band brings down the lights and goes for tender vulnerability the look chafes like a cheap costume. On “Too Young To Pray,” “Am I Just Wasting My Time,” and “I Wonder” the record feels like its courting well outside of its intended audience, hamming it up for the Brillo Cream boomers that like the way that boy looks in a tie. And doesn’t he just sing lovely? Its Tom Jones with a sneer and a wide-brimmed fedora.
The gamble, unfortunately, tends to deflate even the best moments and leaves the record feeling like it can’t make up its mind to go all in on a big budget rock record or leave the Beats’ name behind and deliver a Blackwell soul-glo half-hour special. Fans of Night Beats likely came for the dark n’ downers, and were the whole album to strut in the manner of “One Thing,” “Eyes on Me” and “Let Me Guess,” this might stand among some of Night Beats’ best. There’s nothing to be lost from treading new ground, or even lightening the mood with a softer respite between the sweat-soakers, but on Myth of a Man Blackwell and Auerbach have pulled the rug out from under the band’s sound in the name of wilting ballads that don’t inspire love, lust or, sadly, repeat listens.
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