Tracked entirely at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye studio in Nashville, Hanni El Khatib’s sophomore outing lives up to its title. Head in the Dirt is loaded with raw, scuzzy, no-nonsense blues-rock, its lyrics telling of misfit isolation, relationship angst and hardscrabble street life.
Plenty has already been said about the garage revival spearheaded by the likes of Ty Segall, JEFF the Brotherhood and Mikal Cronin, but what sets El Khatib apart is his fascination with the rootsier end of rock ‘n’ roll — think Bo Diddley and Ballin’ Jack. Thanks to his Bay Area skate-park roots, he absorbed these influences through the dual prisms of hip-hop and punk, which made his 2011 debut Will the Guns Come Out a muzzle-blast of slashing guitars, gravel-crunching beats and rebel swagger.
El Khatib’s growth as a songwriter takes Head in the Dirt a step further, but it doesn’t hurt that he has an ass-kicking band behind him (Auerbach on bass, Bobby Emmett on keyboards and Patrick Keeler on drums). The title track swirls out of a psychedelic haze into a razor-sharp groove, with El Khatib snarling into a distorted microphone, “Don’t want your empathy/ The road to my heart is narrow and covered with thorns.” Despite that grim sentiment, El Khatib is mostly having fun; you can hear it in the guitar solo that rips through “Skinny Little Girl,” in the twists and shouts of “Save Me” (which reprises the evergreen “Not Fade Away” shuffle beat, and in the pure elation of the scuzz-pop ditty “Penny” (“You’re my perfect little penny/ So please shine on”). Vintage amps buzzing all around him, El Khatib sounds right at home in the Black Keys’ sandbox.