Hanni El Khatib appeared, seemingly from nowhere but actually from the world of San Francisco skateboarding, last year. His initial calling cards – the two singles ‘Dead Wrong’ and ‘Build.Destroy.Rebuild’ – were bolstered by the inclusion of his cover version of Funkadelic’s ‘I Got a Thing’ on a “high profile” Nike commercial, plastered all over our TVs. Now bringing us his debut album (with the two singles included, and the cover version added as a “bonus track” on the end), El Khatib gives us an opportunity to better get the measure of the artist who himself has described his songs are “for anyone who’s ever been shot or hit by a train. Knife fight music”.
What the music in fact is, in slightly less florid prose, is straight-up, straightforward garage rock, with a side of blues and an occasional touch of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. There are several moments where it almost veers towards the imitative, so close does it sound to the White Stripes – see ‘Fuck It You Win’ (with its Meg-alike percussion), ‘Come Alive’, and particularly ‘You Rascal You’, with its formally-structured, repeating lyrics (“I trusted you in my home, you rascal you / I trusted you in my home, you rascal you / I trusted you in my home, you wouldn’t leave my wife alone / I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you” etc) in the blues idiom, its deliberate use of slightly archaic language and the stripped down sound. Elsewhere there are suggestions of the late Jay Reatard, fans of whom might enjoy the scuzzy guitar sounds, swampy feel and suggestion of evil (“you’ve got that vampire look tonight”) of ‘Loved One’, for example.
The 1950s are also much in evidence, not only with a sort-of cover version of Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ – lyrics apart, so different as to be almost unrecognisable – but also in tracks like ‘Dead Wrong’, where El Khatib combines a kind of do-wop rhythm with “wah-ooh”s, a Buddy Holly vocal and handclaps (which are also a significant feature of the title track and of the album’s closer).
The album’s prevailing tone is bleak, all betrayed romance and nihilism. Lyrical statements are frequently of the “Ain’t no future (…) no more culture” (‘Build.Destroy.Rebuild’) or “Our city’s made of garbage / Our city’s made of fakes” (‘GarbageCity’) ilk. Aggression is often implicit or overt, from ‘Dead Wrong’ with its evocation of a threatening-looking gang at night to ‘GarbageCity’, where the protagonist’s surroundings are claimed to be forcing him to “act rough, rough, rough”. The positivity that can be found, in parts of ‘Dead Wrong’ (“I’ve got something to say / Something that’ll hopefully brighten your day”) and ‘Come Alive’, with the scratch and jump of the guitar acting as a counterpoint to El Khatib’s words, is somehow doubly uplifting, when it emerges out of such a downbeat context.
While tracks like ‘Will the Guns Come Out’, ‘Build.Destroy.Rebuild’, the propulsive ‘I Got A Thing’ (tacked on the end as a bonus track) and particularly the quite lovely, acoustic and mellow Wait.Wait.Wait’ all have something to offer the fan of a less-ornamented, pared down, back-to-basics musical approach, it is hard not to feel that this album has not really succeeded in establishing a firm identity for El Khatib. Nice moments aside, there is simply too much here that resembles things that have gone before, and the album lacks the kind of distinctive voice that is needed to make the singer more than simply “the one who did that Nike ad song”.