Sprawling with Eclectic Inspiration
In his latest full release, Savage Times, Hanni El Khatib sets out to do something new. He instead ends up doing everything new. Once an almost exclusively blues-rock guitarist in the lane of Dan Auerbach, El Khatib has released an album that draws inspiration from disco, synth-pop, punk, lo-fi alternative, among other types of music. Sounds like too much? At times, it is.
This diversity in sounds should not come as a surprise to fans. Savage Times was released in waves throughout 2016 in the form of four separate EPs. These releases were a departure from the scuzzy garage rock El Khatib has come to be known for, making way for a slew of eclectic influences. Clocking in at 60 minutes, Savage Times includes 19 songs from the EPs, coming off as more of a compilation than a cohesive album — one with a tendency to change direction without notice. Ramones-inspired “Baby’s OK” leads into synthy, 8-bit “Die Alone,” which leads into the furious “Born Brown,” which leads into light, disco-infused “Paralyzed.” Imagine a playlist that includes The Strokes, Zapp, The Men (at their most ferocious) and Scissor Sisters, in that order, and you can more or less get a picture of Savage Times‘s sonics. Such sonic volatility can make a 60-minute album like this at times exhausting.
But there is much to enjoy about Savage Times, and it’s certainly difficult to argue that it is never uninteresting. El Khatib lets loose in “Mondo and His Makeup” and “Till Your Rose Comes Home,” freewheeling in songs that will likely satisfy fans during live performances. The album is lyrically compelling as well. El Khatib covers issues plaguing the country such as civil violence (“Gun Clap Hero”) and gentrification in “No Way,” where he sings, “we see them coming from a mile away / we going nowhere even if we’re chased.” These songs cover issues that plague the country, but many are also deeply personal to him. While Hanni El Khatib is based in San Francisco, his parents are Palestinian and Filipino immigrants, hence, his aggressive take on his cultural identity in “Born Brown” and later in “Mangos and Rice.” The former is directed at his parents’ adversity as US immigrants, while the latter discusses his upbringing and cultural identity. Although they are personal songs, El Khatib never comes across as sentimental or nostalgic. Much like the artists who inspired him (e.g. The Black Keys, Ramones), Savage Times never wears rose-colored glasses.
Hanni El Khatib has not abandoned who he is; he is just evolving. He remains ambitious, experimental and energetic. If we must label him, he is still sonically a lo-fi blues rocker, but Khatib cannot — and perhaps does not want to — be pinned down to one sound here. While his ambition renders the album a bit scattershot, Savage Times succeeds in living up to its title: it’s bold, unfiltered and brutally honest, all of which make the album worth a listen. While El Khatib’s experimentation does not always work, it tells us that the best is yet to come.