Reading about Hanni El Khatib, you get a real impression of the slacker-pop dream; an almost hobbyist musician who was inspired by friends to make a go of it, the one-time creative director for HUF passed around his CDR to people after a show in San Francisco.
That landed in the hands of Innovative Leisure‘s Jamie Strong, and suddenly the side hustle of El Khatib became a full-time project. It even landed him working with The Black Key’s frontman Dan Auerbach, who afforded the California native time in his studio to record 2013’s Head In The Dirt.
It’s hard not to be both envious and inspired by El Khatib’s ascension, and a slacker he is not by any means.
FLIGHT is El Khatib’s fifth full-length outing, edging further away from the more blues-rock elements that the multi-instrumentalist started with and into the more explorative that crept through more prominently on 2017’s Savage Times.
It makes sense that FLIGHT allows for the performer to expand his songwriting, given that blues-rock seems to have almost been plumbed to its, at times, shallow depths completely.
Yet, the majority of the cuts lifted from the new album do not seem to do the more curious moments any justice whatsoever.
It would be within reason when you listen to “Alive”, for example, to have an expectation that the album is going to lift to the paint-by-numbers hypnagogic-pop formula akin to MGMT or Vampire Weekend/Discovery/a fair amount of Rostam Batmanglij’s songwriting.
Even with the effected breakbeat of “Stressy“, it doesn’t really chart new ground for even El Khatib – ultimately a few samples don’t change the fact that this is just another Black Keys influenced number.
No – the power of FLIGHT comes from those moments that perhaps Innovative Leisure chose not to share in the event it may alienate long-time fans of El Khatib. Perhaps that’s the reasoning – because what’s out there at present doesn’t do the album any justice.
I mean you can reconcile the notion that these are compositions that aren’t anything we’ve not heard before via. the aforementioned bands; this is the norm in terms of indie music at present it seems.
But it feels like El Khatib is having a lot more fun stretching his musical reach and the results, well, actually manage to strike a chord.
“Detroit”, for example, is incredibly playful if not criminally short instrumental that would easily sit at home on a number of recent hip-hop albums.
It’s filthy, funk bassline alongside its flanged guitar lead, followed shortly with a mellow, post-club synth line is a wonderous moment to bring the album to its near close.
The drum line energy also from “Leader” is another highlight from the album; it commands the attention of the listner from the outset with its emphasis on percussion and beat rather than melody. Which some could argue is a fundamental part of blues-rock; the beats you can nod along to in the melody.
I was really surprised with those moments El Khatib seems to swim out of the shallow pools he has become known for and instead explores what he is capable of creating. I’m sure he knows he can pen that blues-rock he is known for because its been apparent for 19 years.
Ignore the parts of the sum and focus on the whole. This is one of those situations where the singles do not do the album justice – if you’re looking for something a little fresh but that doesn’t completely abscond from what’s popular these days, Flight is definitely for you.
I’m looking forward to more of El Khatib in the future if he’s going to experiment more away from the guitar – because that is the stuff that turned the album from paint-by-number to something more interesting, ultimately.