It’s refreshing to see a major label aggressively market an artist like Gary Clark Jr. Since his break out performance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroad’s Festival in 2010, the 28 year-old Texas blues man has been profiled in almost every major entertainment magazine, played every nearly every major music festival, performed for the President, and has supplied the theme for the 2011 NFL Draft as well as an upcoming Sundance channel film series. That’s impressive.
Although there is reason to be skeptical of an artist receiving this kind of PR treatment after being plucked from relative obscurity, Clark is more than deserving of the attention than you might initially think. Before signing his major label deal, he cut his teeth on the Austin club circuit for eight years crafting his own style of heavy blues. His incendiary guitar playing is steeped in tradition while still sounding fresh, and unlike so many talented guitarists, this dude can really sing.
For his first full studio album, ‘Blak and Blu’, Clark showcases an eclectic range of musical influences from blues-rock, R&B to neo-soul. It is definitely an album intended to have a mainstream appeal, which ends up being both a good and bad thing. The major label production gives many of the tracks a lively and even psychedelic sound, but leaves several of the soul/R&B tracks feeling a bit forced and overproduced. The end result is an uneven album, yet still remains one of the most exciting releases of the year.
Gary Clark Jr’s Numb
Ain’t Messin ‘Round opens the record with a blaring horn section over an upbeat Motown rhythm before breaking into an immediately catchy chorus. The major label studio production, featuring double tracked vocals and heavy drum reverb, succeeds in creating a massive wall of sound without obscuring what Clark is all about. The album’s single, Bright Lights, is a heavy blues stomp that kicks off with a searing guitar bend that seems to tear right through your speakers. By the chorus, Clark asserts his ascension to rock stardom proclaiming, “You’re gonna know by name by the end of the night.”
When My Train Pulls In and Numb are two Hendrix-inspired slow blues tracks that give Clark a chance to stretch out on a couple of old fashioned extended guitar jams. The guitar tone on these tracks is jarring, the torrid sound of an overdriven analog-tube amplifier pushed to the point of combustion. His solos are fueled with the flash and virtuosity of Jimi and the raw punk attitude of Jack White. There are only a handful of current guitarists who have such a singular style that their playing is instantly recognizable after only a single note or phrase, and Clark surely fits into this category.
The album’s title track, Blak and Blu, is a 90’s neo-soul workout complete with a heavy kick drum, stacked vocal harmonies and punchy horn lines. Next to the exhilarating guitar songs on the album however, it ends up sounding like a half-baked D’Angelo outtake. Similarly, The Life is an old-school hip-hop tune with a sing-songey chorus that sounds out of place next to the rest of the record. Other R&B tracks including Please Come Home and Things are Changing, showcase Clark’s impressive vocal chops but lack the sonic space for the songs to breathe. I suspect that in a live setting however, when carried by Clark’s voice, these songs absolutely kill.
Though Blak and Blu may not be fully representative of what Gary Clark Jr. does best, it’s a bold opening statement. With this album he’s arrived as a 21st century blues man who seems poised to make a real dent in the mainstream music space. And despite its flaws, “Blak and Blu” has the genuine soul, intensity and swagger to appeal to blues purists and Black Keys fans alike.
Written by Ethan Varian
OurVinyl | Contributor