Blak and Blu by Gary Clark Jr.
This one is interesting. First, let's have a little honesty here. Black folks have done us all a solid. With the exceptions of classical, prog, and grunge music, most of the West's popular forms of music (i.e. jazz, hip hop, rock'n'roll, R&B, etc.) were pioneered by African Americans. Let that sink in.
That brings me to this album. Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak and Blu synthesizes all of that in a single place. An interesting idea, especially for a debut.
So here it goes.
Off the bat, the opener is a neo-Chuck Berry roller called "Ain't Messin' 'Round." Uptempo, falsetto backup vocals, slightly-distorted guitar solo. Nice sampling of what Mr. Berry was doing back in the day with some new school flavor. It almost taps your foot for you.
Next is a straight-up blues rocker called "When My Train Pulls In." I'm not a huge fan of this song - just don't like the sound. But it does take the listener to a different era of Black music. Lots of gospel influence here with some seriously emotional guitar soloing. The North Mississippi All Stars would be proud.
Following "My Train," is one of my favorites, the title track. Think John Legend (there's even a "get lifted" quote!) meets The Black Keys. Urban blues gets a little alternative. Simple tune but unique and groovy. Check it.
Next up is "Bright Lights" and "Travis County." If "Blak and Blu" brings John Legend to The Keys, then "Bright Lights" would be The Keys takin' it to Mr. Legend. Dirty guitar and plenty of references to liven' in the city. That's all I have to say about that. "Travis County" on the other hand, has Chuck Berry written all over it. Copy and paste man. Little Richard's falsetto would be right at home in this one.
With the next track, "The Life," we get the hip-hop side of the album. Easy, almost-spoken lyrics, fresh beat, and catchy hook. Definitely not East or West Coast, but some of the more spoken-word MCs a la Common or the boys of De La Soul would totally rhyme over this.
Back to electric blues with the next two, "Glitter Ain't Gold" and "Numb." Even though the messages are a little worn out, most material in blues music is. We all got the same problems! Gary proves again that even though he can do all the Black genres, blues is his thing. "Glitter Ain't Gold" is another one that's a favorite of mine and "Numb" is no slouch either.
Now for a total change of pace, "Please Come Home" steps in. Soul, soul, soul baby. Four Tops, Temptations, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. There all in there. Clark's rendition is surprisingly genuine. Doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and well, it works. Tasty horn hits, some clean falsetto vocals, a little guitar soloing, and lots of swing. Love it.
Next up is "Things Are Changin'" At first I wasn't a huge fan, but I came around. This one is hard to make an accurate comparison. It has the Legend sound and woman-centered content, but the way it's framed is very different. Every time I listened to this one, I found something new to like. Pretty cool.
Next up is a mash of two tunes "Third Stone from the Sun & If You Love Me Like You Say." The former is a pseudo-instrumental Jimi Hendrix tune that's a little weird even for Jimi. Very psychedelic. Lots of things to hear and see here. Clark's version is a little more conservative but obviously not a complete departure before giving way to the latter. Straight up blues with some tasty shaker work seriously effected guitar soloing before getting back into Jimi's tune. I suppose it's a cool tune although, I'll bet a live version would be much cooler.
Penultimate track is called "You Saved Me." You guessed it: more blues rock. Almost just straight up alt rock. Despite the heavy guitar intro, the meat of the song is a little lighter in texture, think The Black Coldplay Keys. The Blacoldpleys. Not really a fan of this one.
And lastly a lo-fi blues called "Next Door Neighbor Blues." Robert Johnson's ghost makes an appearance here. Very cool that one of the first Black genres to go mainstream (blues) is the last to appear on the album. Gary gives us a little slide guitar action and other than the gee-tar and his voice, that's all you get. Bare bones stuff right here that brings us full circle.
Overall, I'm a fan of Gary's debut album. The concept is interesting and frankly, ambitious. Glad he didn't try to go crazy, but instead demonstrates that he's capable of quite a bit more than the electric blues that is normally his bread and butter. Some may not like the jumping from genre to genre, but at least there's a point behind this game of leap frog. For some fresh samplings of all that a contemporary blues, R&B, soul, rock artist has to offer, check out Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak and Blu.