By Eleni P. Austin
Hanni El Khatib is only 31 years old, but he seems like an old soul. Half Filipino, half Palestinian, El Khatib grew up in San Francisco, emersed in the Skateboard culture. He began his professional career as the creative director for a Skateboard fashion label and a designer for an ad agency.
But his passion for music could not be contained. His 2010 demos got him signed to Innovative Leisure, (an off-shoot of the infamous L.A. indie label, Stones Throw).
El Khatib’s audacious, full-length debut arrived in late 2011. Armed with eight original songs and three covers, (including a menacing re-working of Louis Armstrong’s classic “You Rascal You”), the multi-instrumentalist conjured up noir images of gun molls, switch blades, leather jackets, india ink tattoos, and pomaded duck tails. (Less “Happy Days” and more “The Wild One” ).
The monochromatic melodies and bluesy, bare-bones instrumentation echoed the music of Link Wray, Band Of Skulls, Black Keys and the White Stripes.
El Khatib spent the last year touring. Playing small club gigs as well as opening for taste making artists like Florence & The Machine. His artwork has been displayed in a plethora of L.A. galleries. His music has also popped up in commercials by Nike, Nissan and Audi.
While his debut was mostly fleshed-out versions of his demos, his second album feels more cohesive. Perhaps this is because Head In The Dirt is produced by Dan Auerbach.
Aside from co-piloting the badass Blues Rock duo, Black Keys with Patrick Carney, Auerbach has released an impressive solo album, Keep It Hid, and produced albums for Jessica Lea Mayfield, Hacienda, Bombino and New Orleans legend, Dr. John.
The title track opens the album, as if already in progress. The swirling, cyclonic instrumentation is powered by El Khatib’s rickety guitar riffs, bubbling Hammond B3 fills , a martial cadence and distorted vocals. El Khatib is down, but not out… “I want my money back, give it back to me/I want my lovin’ back, don’t want your empathy/Drink myself to sleep at night and dream about my misery.”
El Khatib’s guitar is front and center on both “Family” and “Skinny Little Girl.” The melody on the former,( an off kilter ode to filial loyalty,) bares slight resemblance to Larry Williams’ 60s R&B nugget, “Slow Down.” The tune careens between strafing guitar blasts and an insistent swivel-hipped beat.
On the latter, strummy guitar licks morph into thick riffs drenched in reverb. Fluttery organ and a chunky rhythm provide ballast as El Khatib admonishes this flighty girl concluding “I think I’m gonna pray for you.”
The best tracks here are “Nobody Move,” “Save Me,” “Sinking In The Sand” and “Low.” Nobody Move” is a swaggering outlaw tale anchored by layered Farfisa organ, a thundering beat and El Khatib’s scuzzy fuzztone guitar break. The lyrics are terse and succinct… “Ain’t no time to be a hero, ain’t no time to act tough/Nobody better hold me down, please shut up!”
“Save Me” feels like a pocket history of seminal Rock & Roll. An agile shape-shifter, the tune pivots from a shambolic Bo Diddley handclap rhythm to clipped, staccato Chuck Berry-style guitar riffs.
On “Sinking In The Sand” whipsaw guitar chords collide with a crackling backbeat. El Khatib’s lyrics provide light at the end of a very dark tunnel… “When you’re sinking in the sand, just keep reaching for my hand.”
Finally, the melody on “Low” pinballs between the elastic rock steady skank of Ska and the snake charmer groove of Middle Eastern Bellydance music. An unlikely symbiosis that works.
The action slows on a couple of tracks. “Pay No Mind” blends bee-sting guitar riffs and a thumping rhythm. The melody feels like a distant cousin to JJ Cale’s “Cocaine.” Slinky bass lines slither through “Can’t Win ‘Em All,” a guttural and bluesy lament.
The only cut that feels out of place here is “Penny.” Clearly the most commercial song on the album it would be more at home on an album by MGMT or Passion Pit.
The record closes with “House On Fire.” A combustible paean to forbidden love replete with incendiary guitar breaks and blistering backbeats. It’s a smoking tour-de-force.
Head In The Dirt is a solo album in name only. El Khatib handles lead guitar and vocals, Farfisa organ and percussion. Dan Auerbach provides bass, guitar, backing vocals and percussion. Patrick Keeler plays drums and Bobby Emmett takes care of Hammond B3, piano, keyboards and electric sitar.
Thanks to Dan Auerbach’s deft production, Hanni El Khatib gracefully sidesteps the dreaded sophomore slump. Although his reverence for mid-century iconography is ever present, it never feels nostalgic. Hanni El Khatib is timeless.