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Album Review | Hanni El Khatib: Head in the Dirt

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There is something inside me that says I shouldn’t like Hanni El Khatib. He   worked as the creative director of skateboard fashion label HUF, done commercials with Nike, and was featured on the TV show Hung. Because of his commercial interests I am wary that he is a designer first and that his music is a product to be sold. Is he is a designer making music rather than a musician designing music? Does it even matter? The music is good.

Head in the Dirt is Hanni El Khatib’s second studio release following 2011’s stripped down, blues covered, dive joint album, Will the Guns Come Out. Given Hanni El Khatib’s bluesy garage sound, it was only a matter of time before El Khatib and Black Key’s front man Dan Auerbach met. They did so at a bar in Paris. A couple of whiskey drinks later and the two decided to collaborate: Hanni El Katib designing the logo for Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio, Auerbach producing Hanni El Katib’s Head in the Dirt with him at the aforementioned Nashville, TN-based studio.

Hanni El Khatib says he wants to create the music that would be playing if you were stuck in the desert with $5, a knife, and a muscle car (via larecord.com). In the album he succeeds in leaving you to the vultures, snakes, oil, fires, pick-up trucks, desert sand, revenge, and heartbreak. Auerbach manages to strip it down and bring it to life all at the same time. Auerbach’s signature electric guitar and drums pulse throughout the album, and I found myself air-drumming and head banging right along with infectious chorus of the song “Penny” and my fingers turned my desk into an organ on “Skinny Little Girl.” Hanni El Khatib grabs onto timeless elements of American music: he keeps it simple and he turns it up. This album is to be played at maximum volume. Fuzzy guitar and pounding snare kick you in the teeth early in this albumand they don’t let up until the last song on the 11 track album.

At times, Head in the Dirt seems a little too focused on writing a fight song.  Hanni El Khatib’s first album was so enjoyable because it was dynamic. It gave respect to blues artists like Son House and Clarence Williams. It experimented with both acoustic and electric guitar. Sometimes it ditched guitars altogether in favor of handclaps and a backing choir. At times you were in the desert with five bucks, but sometimes you had 10. Perhaps Dan Auerbach’s presence was a little heavy handed on this album. With the distorted vocals and emphasis on drums and guitar, Head in the Dirt comes off sounding more like a Black Keys album than a Hanni El Khatib album.

What Head in the Dirt lacks in variety, it makes up for in brute force. All and all, Hanni El Katib designed a pretty good album, and a damn near perfect one for those Milwaukee summer nights at your favorite dive bar, with a beer in your hand, and a fire in your heart.