Saturday, May 9, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1366: Gary Clark Jr

When I saw this next album is now five years old it really made me wonder where the time goes. Five years flew by in the blink of an eye.

Disc 1366 is…. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
Artist: Gary Clark Jr.

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? A kid gets on a bus, or at least contemplates getting on a bus. I guess we shouldn’t prejudge his decision.

Whenever I look at this cover my eyes get tricked into thinking the kid’s backpack is connected to the powerlines in the background. Of course it is just a trick of the eye. Also, that would be incredibly dangerous. That backpack is not rated for carrying 345,000 volts.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Randall put me on to this album. Either that or Ethan Hawke. I get those two mixed up all the time.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Gary Clark Jr. album, so it can’t really stack up. I checked out the much-hyped follow-up 2019’s “This Land” but while I thought it was OK, I decided to give it a pass.

Ratings: 3 stars

For the second straight review I’ve encountered a record that is loaded with technical excellence and artistic merit, but that didn’t reach deep into my soul. That said, this record lays down a cool groove, and even a bit of crunch when the occasion demands.

Gary Clark Jr. is one talented dude. He writes all the songs and plays not only guitar, but on many tracks also plays bass, drums, and keyboard. To do this he must either run very quickly from instrument to instrument or relies on post production. I suspect the latter, but I hope I’m wrong.

Anyway, his vocals aren’t going to blow you away, but he has a nice tone and can tack between a rock growl and a smooth R&B delivery with ease. This gives him a lot of flexibility on how to approach each song, and he takes good advantage of it. On guitar he has a propensity to noodle a bit, but he plays with a rich tone and a natural feel that allows you to forgive him the occasional excess.

When Clark sticks the landing, he delivers some quality music. The album has both crunchy rock tracks like “The Healing” and at the other end gospel-inspired songs like “Church”. “Church” was the album’s single as I recall, and well chosen. The stripped-down raw strumming on guitar plays the part of both drum and hand clap simultaneously. This song is a plea for help in dark times, and while calling on the Almighty like this has been done similarly in many songs before, Clark’s version is a worthy entry in that canon.

Not content with two styles of music, Clark delivers some baby-making R&B-infused action with “Our Love” and some groovy social commentary on “Hold On.” Again, he breaks no new ground with his approach, but the songs have good bones, solid production choices and they are played with a high degree of skill. I particularly liked the mix of the funky horn riff on “Hold On” crossed with the gritty rock guitar solo. Nice juxtaposition, Gary!

Unfortunately, there are moments where that excess I mentioned earlier goes beyond occasional. “Wings” is a rambling bit of mood music that isn’t sure what mood it wants to strike. The record ends on a sour note, with the noodle-infested eight-minute long “Down to Ride,” which four minutes in had me wishing I could just get out and walk. These few off moments make for a record that is about 10 minutes too long by the time all is said and done.

Lyrically, there isn’t much to write home about either, and certainly nothing so profound to quote external to the music. However, Clark does a good job of infusing some simple straightforward messages with the right music to enhance the mood. It makes for a record that is good to idly sink into, rather than one for parsing out revelatory meaning. Sometimes Clark is feeling sad, sometimes he’s ready to rock, and sometimes he’s randy. It’s not complicated beyond that.

Overall, this is a solid record thought, and very much shelf-worthy, even if I don’t put it on as often as I should.

Best tracks: The Healing, Our Love, Church, Hold On, Can’t Sleep

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