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Published: 2012/10/24
by Brian Robbins

Gary Clark Jr.
Blak And Blu

Warner Bros. Records

Gary Clark Jr.’s new Blak And Blu picks up where last year’s Bright Lights EP left off: plenty of blues-fueled mean-assed guitar playing that pays homage to the past and looks to the future, coupled with old-soul vocal work that’s as real as the picking. Blak And Blu also offers a few other flavors of Clark’s sound which will no doubt take listeners by surprise.

The heart and soul of the bulk of Blak And Blu is the blues, served up in enough variations to keep anyone with a pulse happy. The album comes roaring out of the chute with “Ain’t Messin’ Around”: horns punching left and right, driving bass, a drum beat that kicks everything in the ass, and Clark testifying like a true soul man (when he’s not playing the hell out of his guitar). Need a fix of classic psychedelic Union Jack swirl? Feed your head with “Numb” as it lumbers and roars like a cousin to Robin Trower’s “Bridge Of Sighs”. “Travis County” rips along flat to the floor in true Stevie Ray Vaughan rave-up style.

“Bright Lights” is Clark’s best-known song at this point: few could pull off its “You’re going to know my name by the end of the night” hook without it sounding like an empty brag. When Clark growls it out, however, there’s no doubt – and that scary-assed guitar of his just drives the point home. That ain’t no threat: that’s a statement of fact, Jack.

There’s a Hendrixian vibe to the wah pedal work on “Glitter Ain’t Gloom” – and a direct Jimi reference with the killer sandwich of Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say” tucked between two slabs of “Third Stone From The Sun”. Though Hendrix’ well-known space odyssey has been covered by many, Clark puts his own spin on it with his thick, rumbling tone on the main riff and his break-out solo towards the end. And “Next Door Neighborhood Blues” does the deed right on the back porch, all foot stomp and nasty bottleneck wail.

Even the slower soul numbers “Please Call Home” and “Things Are Changing” feel like naturals coming from Clark. The former is a lovely and powerful street corner do-wop number that showcases the man’s pipes – recorded perfectly from the opening draw of breath (nice!) to Clark’s heart-purging guitar break – while the latter combines the Rev. Al Green’s smoothness with just enough bite to keep the story feeling real. (Remember Keith Richards’ “Make No Mistake” off the Talk Is Cheap album? Yeah …)

Where Blak And Blu gets a little out of kilter is when it pulls abrupt costume changes and transforms itself from raw-boned blues to drowsy-lidded hip-hop. “You Saved Me”, “The Life”, and – ironically – the title track sound more like Kanye West than the Fillmore East. (Clark’s fuzzed-out 6-string does succeed in giving “You Saved Me” a welcomed edge.)

You have to wonder if Clark’s forays into the lounge were his idea or the work of management trying to hit as many targets as possible with his major-label debut LP. If Clark’s in the driver’s seat, then hats off to him: it’s a brave move to experiment at this stage of the game. If someone else is tugging the wheel, however, then perhaps they should let go: the man might just be capable of making history simply by playing the blues, baby. And there ain’t a thing wrong with that.

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