Marcus King | El Dorado | (Fantasy)
4 out of 5 stars
‘El Dorado’ is billed as the solo debut for Marcus King — the 23-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter — and while that is technically true, he has released three previous, well received albums under the moderately enhanced Marcus King Band banner. That outfit has been together since before its 2014 first disc, which means King has been at it professionally for over six years. That’s a lot of miles already under the young frontman’s belt (including a high profile stint opening a Tedeschi Trucks Band tour). Though in many ways this album does feel like a fresh beginning for King.
Producer Dan Auerbach jettisons King’s band, replacing them with studio pros such as two veterans from the American Sound Studio band that played behind Elvis, Dusty Springfield and many others. Opening track “Young Man’s Dream” sets the stage for the less boogie, guitar oriented approach with an emphasis on King’s scratchy, emotionally searing vocals as he sings about his life and a lost love (“Left my home when I was 17/Feet were dirty but my soul was clean”) over sweet, sensitive acoustic guitar.
There are detours from that newly sympathetic style, most obviously in the thumping, guitar riffed rawked-up “The Well,” the tough ZZ Top-styled swamp of “Say You Will” and the J.J. Cale meets Chris Stapleton soul stomp of “Too Much Whisky.” But those tunes, as strong as they are, seem to be included to balance the program’s tender side that dominates the proceedings. The honeyed, countrypolitan “Love Song,” the R&B/Otis Redding vibe of “Wildflowers & Wine,” the Southern slow dance ballad “One Day She’s Here,” the electric piano driven, poignant ballad “Beautiful Stranger” and the falsetto vocal of the retro-styled “Break” (with strings!) are standouts on King’s (and Auerbach’s) consistently strong initial pairing.
Time, and his existing fan base, will tell if this is a successful remake/remodel for King who, except for a few instances, keeps his impressive guitar prowess on low boil. The focus on his sympathetic, some might say flinty, vocals and a more introspective attitude yields some beautiful, stirring moments, even when the production threatens to steal the spotlight as it almost does on the gripping closing “No Pain.” That song though with its tender, widescreen sweep, “soulful Southern drawl” lyrics and reserved, jazz-inflected guitar solo puts an exclamation point on King’s shift into less raucous territory, similar to Springsteen’s recent effort.
‘El Dorado’ is an inspiring and impressive work displaying another side of King’s talents, albeit one that he has shown glimpses of in the past. It’s certainly his most expressive and arguably finest recorded moment.