The Arcs: Electrophonic Chronic [Album Review]

The Arcs
Electrophonic Chronic
Easy Eye Sound / Concord [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

Had things gone as planned, we’d likely have gotten a follow-up to The Arcs’ fine 2015 debut album, Yours, Dreamily, by 2018, as the band reportedly put anywhere from 80 to 100 tracks down in the studio, recording even while they were out touring behind their first record. Of course, when your band is considered a side-project for not one but two guys with established production credentials who also run record companies you might think delays are expected, especially when one of them is also a member of a successful major label recording act like The Black Keys. But Dan Auerbach and Leon Michaels are clear that the nearly 8 years since their debut, has more to do with the sudden, unexpected death of band member Richard Swift in 2018, the result of his long-time alcohol addiction.

Swift, beyond his solo albums, is of course remembered for his contributions and production work on albums by Damien Jurado, David Bazan, Kevin Morby, and Nathaniel Rateliff, among others. In 2011, Swift joined The Shins for 5 years, toured with The Black Keys in ’14-’15. The Arcs were originally called together in the studio by Auerbach in 2015, as he was planning a follow-up to his 2009 solo debut, but soon solidified as a band in its own right. Michaels, an original member of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, brought along drummer and fellow Dap-King Homer Steinweiss, as well as bassist Nick Movshon, who’d played on Amy Winehouse’s breakout record, “Back to Black,” as well as albums produced by Auerbach and Michaels, joining Michaels in The Black Keys’ touring band in 2010. Swift had also played bass on tour with The Black Keys, and he, Auerbach and the others bonded over a common appreciation of older soul, funk, and blues 45’s and the way African American roots music influenced pop music.

While the music recorded here stands up very well on its own merits, given Swift’s death and the passing of time, there’s a shadow very like the one in El Olm’s album cover art, that makes Electrophonic Chronic feel like an homage to the memory of Swift, who’s voice can be heard counting off the beat at the beginning of “The River.” While the band’s debut had strong indie/rock take on soul and R&B, with a dash of psychedelia for flavor, this second collection feels more formally grounded in the roots music is seeks to celebrate, easily claiming the title the bio calls a “neo-psychedelic soul-rock odyssey.”

“Keep On Dreamin’” kicks things off solidly with a funky drum intro by Steinweiss, with Michaels’ Farfisa organ and some nice horn charts dictating the soul song’s changes, a cool break near the end that makes room for Auerbach’s lead vocal accompanied by soulful harmonies, and a compact, emotionally pleasing guitar solo. But this band is not painting by numbers, these tracks have a definitive soulful groove of their own, and on the great, bluesy “Behind the Eyes,” where they show that they know how to kick it up a notch, and then some as the tune builds toward its punchy conclusion. On The Black Keys’ 2021 release, Auerbach and Patrick Carney, provided a smart example about how White musicians could celebrate their appreciation of a traditional African American musical form, the hill country blues of northern Mississippi, avoiding the accusation of appropriation when an artist like Pat Boone had hit records when he delivered tamed-down versions of Little Richard’s songs. Here The Arcs take possession of these musical forms, celebrating the music that inspired these works by serving up the real deal, authentic music that creates a solid connection with any listener.

For his part, Auerbach’s lyrics are solid, and his vocals seem to tap a level of emotional investment that I’m not sure I’ve heard in his previous work. The album’s one cover offers a curious twist, on “Man Will Do Wrong,” Auerbach sings a re-gendered version of Helene Smith’s bluesy, soul ballad “Woman Will Do Wrong” recorded in 1967. There are a couple of musical excursions, “Califone Interlude” and “Backstage Mess” but time in at 1 minute and change, the second feels like a fairly familiar melody, but the second one falls apart only to offer Auerbach’s falsetto and the harmony singers a moment to shine.

There’s a quirky Munchkins in Oz singing the chorus in “Sunshine” that’s an acquired taste that some will find distracting, but most of this disc is spot on, tastefully on the mark, often rising above expectations, as they do on the piano singer/songwriter vibe of “Love Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” with another solid guitar solo, or the two other solid singles, “Eyez” and “Heaven Is a Place.” That last one, floats along on a solid, bluesy guitar line, but while framed as a love song the lyric that “Heaven is a place I know where all the lovers go/And when they die/Everything they had on earth is multiplied,” feel like they’re sending Swift off into the wild blue yonder with hope. While they’ve suggested that there’s more to work with on tape, there’s no telling if Auerbach and Michaels have the heart to go back in to surface another album’s worth of music. As Auerbach sings in “The River,” “It can’t do the things for you that it did before.” Either way, Electrophonic Chronic, more than makes clear that The Arcs were a great band, while serving as a final salute to Richard Swift’s contribution to the music so many of us turn to for solace, comfort, and encouragement, and ultimately for joy.

“Keep On Dreamin’” / “Behind The Eyes” / “Heaven Is A Place”

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings / The Black Keys / Leon Bridges

Yours, Dreamily, (2015)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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