Gary Clark, Jr. Embraces Soulful Blues-Rock On ‘Blak and Blu’
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
With a smooth, soulful voice and raucous, rollicking guitar skills on his highly anticipated debut release Blak and Blu, Gary Clark, Jr. is more than just an authentic classic rock reviver. He is an innovative, modern artist—influenced by R&B structures and sounds—who infuses his style with elements from both genres, to create something that reminisces over the past but is still very aware of the present. Clark established himself as a full-fledged guitar hero in Austin, Texas, burnishing his image and hinting at his rock-god talent by playing various festivals through the early 2000s. Now, working with Mike Elizondo and Rob Cavallo to produce Blak and Blu, Clark has both developed his inimitable sound and solidified his stance in not only one genre, but in several.
Rock ‘n’ roll and blues vibes certainly characterize the undertones of this record, but Clark quickly demonstrates in “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” the first track off Blak and Blu, that he is a dexterous musician, cutting in very subtle neo-soul features, which become noticeably more dominant in other songs. It sets the stage for Clark. Brazenly, amidst ebullient horns, charging drums, and blaring guitars, he proclaims, “Ain’t nobody else like me around.” And he’s probably right.
Paying tribute to the golden, glory days of rock, to the days of Woodstock, and to Jimi Hendrix himself, Clark includes a number of tracks that are very much resonant of the era on Blak and Blu. In fact, he even does a nine-minute cover of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” blended with Albert Collins’s “If You Love Me Like You Say.” He builds through the lengthy intro, carrying the entire song on the neck of his guitar, and eventually launches into a forceful blues refrain. “Travis County” has a similar authentic, vintage-rock feel to it. With its revved-up, electric power chords and its souped-up, Chuck Berry-esque cruising jam, “Travis County” is an irresistible, all-American, road-tripping track.
On both “Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ For Nothin’)” and “Numb,” Clark best exhibits his ability to adroitly layer bright riffs and roaring, distorted guitars. The former is slamming and authoritative, yet it still sets into a comfortable rhythm. “Numb” is undeniably brooding, relying on a single, compelling riff to forward the song steadily on. Evocative and emotional, Clark’s persuasive vocals bleed into the blaring fuzz of the guitars—they’re sensual and pure, but complement the tone of the track.
Though many songs on Blak and Blu possess bluesy aspects, those features are most evident on the jamming song “When My Train Pulls In” and the propelling track “Bright Lights.” Both rely on very constant, repetitive grooves that, inevitably, pervade every facet of the listener’s being, until, without realizing it, the listener begins to nod along, slipping effortlessly into Clark’s persistent groove. “Next Door Blues” is acoustic old-school blues at its finest, though: slick, swaggering, and toe-tapping. Finding this niche and fluently rolling with it seems to be an indisputable skill of Clark’s.
But Blak and Blu isn’t entirely tenacious, boisterous blues-rock—rather, it consists of several slower, genre-jumping tracks also. For example, “Please Come Home,” where Clark romantically croons in a flawless falsetto, is essentially a retro ballad with a soul-pop tempo. Sultry and relaxed, “Things Are Changing” is similar, but instead of a vintage vibe, it has a more Memphis-blues backbeat. “You Saved Me,” too, is steady and simple. Unlike the other two songs, however, it has a very current R&B sound to it, despite its light, distorted guitars.
Clark laces these features into other songs on his album as well, on certain tracks almost wholly departing from his rock ‘n’ roll foundations. The record’s title track, for example, enables him to display his easy, suave vocals, completely forgoing his guitar. “Blak and Blu” is groove-laden, with calm horns, cool rhymes, and casual melodies. “The Life,” though, is the most distinct, unique Clark track. With its woozy keyboards, ruminating percussion, and conversational versus, it has a taste of hip-hop flair and a bit of R&B, making it a straightforward, radio-friendly song.
Whether Clark is modestly flirting with hip-hop and R&B elements or locking into classic-rock vibes, Blak and Blu shows that he’s the epitome of an artist comfortable in his style—comfortable enough to embrace his roots and his potential too.