DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Marcus King is a 23-year-old from Greenville, S.C., who until now was best known for the Southern rock and blues he made with the Marcus King Band. Now he's released his first solo album, called "El Dorado." It represents a different direction in King's career. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review of how soulful Marcus King's new music can be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILDFLOWERS & WINE")
MARCUS KING: (Singing) Wildflowers and wine - an old, scratchy record plays in the background of our lives. We're still here dancing after all this time. Wildflowers and wine. I walk through fields...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Marcus King sings in that new song about the, quote, unquote, "old, scratchy records" he listens to, and you get the feeling that in preparing to make his new album "El Dorado," King might have dusted off his Otis Redding and Solomon Burke records to study. As a guitarist who's arrived at his early 20s with a solid reputation as a blues prodigy, he's already restless for new areas of exploration. Perhaps seeking to make sure he doesn't alienate his old fans, however, he took care to make the second song on this new album a blues barn-burner.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WELL")
KING: (Singing) When I was just a young'un bouncing on my mama knee, said, son, there's only one thing that sets your soul free. Wasn't no easy street where I come from. There wasn't no sleeping till the work was done. Papa was a-preaching about the fires of hell. If you want a drink of water, got to go to the well. The Cornerstone Church tried to curse my soul, but the good Lord gave me that rock and roll.
TUCKER: That song, called "The Well," is typical of what Marcus King has done on the previous albums, but it's more the exception than the rule on "El Dorado." What changed? Well, King moved to Nashville and struck up a friendship with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The two started writing songs together - songs that sent King in a different direction toward a more rhythm and blues-based area - and Auerbach offered to produce a King solo album. It's yield such lovely surprises as this soul ballad called "Break."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK")
KING: (Singing) I don't know, darling, whose name you're calling, but don't you mistake him for me. You're falling apart, but don't let your heart break for nobody but me. Got us all guessing who you'll be blessing. Everyone's waiting to see. You think you're so smart, but don't let your heart break for nobody but me. Funny how this town will forget you.
TUCKER: With its falsetto vocal and the way the keyboards become more important than the guitar, "Break" is the clearest representation of Marcus King's new sound. King's road band has been at least momentarily sidelined here. The musicians Dan Auerbach assembled for the album are a collection of veteran session players like keyboard player Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman, who have played on hits for artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Wilson Pickett to Willie Nelson. Their subtlety shines through on this gospel-inflected ballad, "Beautiful Stranger."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL STRANGER")
KING: (Singing) Beautiful stranger, you come here quite often. I don't know your name, but I know what you drink. You got a secret, but it's one you can't keep. Oh, beautiful stranger, you're an angel to me. So if you're feeling lonely, come sit next to me.
TUCKER: So now the question is, which is the real Marcus King - Southern blues rocker or blue-eyed soul balladeer, some combination of both? This feels like a turning point for him. But with Dan Auerbach co-writing every song on "El Dorado," it's impossible to tell what King will do the next time he strikes out on his own. Whatever happens down the road, though, this album is a real beauty.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "El Dorado," the new solo album from Marcus King.
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FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET MARIONA")
KING: (Singing) Sweet Mariona, long as I've known you, you were the apple of my eye, all the stars in my sky. I adore you. Sweet Mariona, from California to the heavens above, I can still feel your love growing stronger. Over the rainbow, I know that you know whenever you cross my mind, the sun's going to shine. Sweet Mariona, sometimes, without warning, I can hear you in the wind coming back to me again and again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.