By Scott McLennan
In this disc, Marcus King takes a step back from the big, hard-charging sound he has been pursuing to great effect with his namesake band over the past few years.
Marcus King continues to refine his fierce and wide-ranging raw talents as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter on the album El Dorado (out on Janurary 17), a solo project produced by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach.
In this disc, King takes a step back from the big, hard-charging sound he has been pursuing to great effect with his namesake band over the past few years. Apparently smitten by the vibe of his new home in Nashville, King leans heavily into his country music influences. With a great crew of ace studio musicians and seasoned co-writers, King and Auerbach cooked up songs that expand the artist’s dynamic range, giving the generally explosive King an opportunity to turn down the volume without necessarily turning down the heat.
That’s clear from El Dorado‘s opener, the haunting “Young Man’s Dream.” Evocative of Harvest-era Neil Young, the tune builds off of King’s acoustic guitar strum, adding a gritty, soul-drenched vocal take that generates a swirl of vulnerability before the song settles into a richer stream of dreamscape blues.
Before the full impact of that killer track can sink in, King serves up a slice of rock ’n’ roll redemption set to a Texas boogie in the form of the “The Well.” Here, King gets to go off on electric guitar while Auerbach dresses up the arrangement with his trademark tube-amp warmth and aural sepia tones.
The dozen tracks are split between gentler turns and bristling rockers. Each number boasts its own flavor, but all of El Dorado hangs together quite nicely.
“Wildflowers & Wine” is a beautiful slow burn of a song that showcases King’s vocal prowess. It is surprisingly easy to forget that King is just 23 years old; an old soul inhabits not only this track, but much of his work.
There’s the occasional overreach, such as R&B-gilded pop song “One Day She’s Here,” which comes off as weirdly lightweight in contrast to the other tracks.
Not that everything aims to or needs to be heavy. King sells the simple rhythm scheme of “Sweet Mariona” with a charming, fairly stripped-down cowboy lope.
On the flip side, there is the piercing and poignant “Beautiful Stranger,” where King unloads both great lines, such as “I don’t know your name, but I know what you drink,” and mournful guitar runs, all of it bolstered by steely electric piano fills and heavenly choir background vocals. And there are other powerful satisfactions in this departure from King’s earlier albums, such as hearing him throw down with Willie Nelson band harmonica player Mickey Raphael on the Willie tribute “Too Much Whiskey” or trying on the sophisticated arrangements of “No Pain.”
El Dorado supplies plenty of fiery guitar work, but the disc is so subtly paced the virtuosity never becomes the sole focal point. Fans of what King has done to this point with the Marcus King Band won’t be disappointed, though. In fact, when the group played in Northampton last month, the performance included a handful of songs off of El Dorado, and they fit in seamlessly, much like Tom Petty’s solo material was at home in a Petty and the Heartbreakers show.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.