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Hanni El Khatib - Will the Guns Come Out

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Artist: Hanni El Khatib

Album: Will the Guns Come Out

Label: Innovative Leisure

Review date: Sep. 26, 2011

With lube-job power chords and gospel refrains, Hanni El Khatib seems like the kind of rocker who divides the world into real and fake. Keeping his obviously-Arab given name (Dad was born overseas) while playing grab-bag Americana is his cheekiest move. Like most musicians who are reverential about first gen rock ‘n’ roll, most of the rest of his artistic choices are of the “ain’t broke and not fixing it” variety.

There’s a difference, though, between being authentic and just keeping it real. I find myself wishing he worked harder at tending the roots and less talking about knife fights. El Khatib’s voice is good and scrawny, and yelps out Tennessee hiccups just right. But he works too hard at selling the whole show, listing out Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi on the bridge of "Come Alive." Jumble that in with his street hoodlum posturing, and it approaches Jets vs. Sharks levels of artifice.

Not being born anywhere near the bayou isn’t the problem. Other Californians like John Fogerty or Gillian Welch found a way to sing from the swamps convincingly, and Nick Cave has long toyed with the archetypes without glazing them to a plastic sheen. El Khatib isn’t really there as a songwriter. His "You Rascal You" is very close to The Bad Seed’s clap-and-stomp blues, and the words wreak a lot vengeance, but never with the imagination of Cave — nor W.C. Handy or Willie Dixon, while we’re at it.

When he takes on a standard, the results aren’t better, either. Slowing "Heartbreak Hotel" through the melodic creep of "St. James Infirmary" makes for something closer to a mash-up than a personal re-interp. El Khatib seem like he’s still flush with the discovery that the old stuff rocked as hard as the new stuff, but he doesn’t have the creative chops yet to prove it.

The best moments on this album are the opener and closer, where reverence is completely dropped: a gospel sing-along gets a bunch of piano noise as interference, and Funkadelic’s "I Got a Thing..." is unrecognizable as a glam-rock boogie. Nobody respected that music when it came out. That’s why it rocked so well.

By Ben Donnelly

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