Monday, January 21, 2013

Gary Clark Jr.: Blak & Blu

Buy This Album Now: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

Gary Clark Jr.'s major label debut is the easiest recommendation I have made in my entire time selling music to people. I have never felt more comfortable putting a CD into peoples' hands. There have been CDs I liked more, ones that were more forward-thinking and artistically progressive, but few that I've been more sure more people will like. There also haven't been that many CDs I've liked more. In terms of musical recommendations, this is the mother lode.

The basis of the album is Gary Clark's guitar chops. That means huge, walloping riffs that give Auerbach a run for his money, and mind-warping solos in the Hendrixian tradition that seem to last decades in a minute. If Guitar Hero was still a thing, I could see "Numb" appearing somewhere near the climax of the game, or "When My Train Pulls In," both highly gloomy, thundering testaments to modern six-string pyrotechnics. Tracks like these capture the way a psychedelic blues song can pump emotions up way beyond their dimensions, and other ones like "Glitter Ain't Gold" and "Ain't Messin 'Round" remind of the smooth-roughness of a good blues rock song. Comparisons could be made to Cream or ZZ Top, but he isn't a copycat playing by rote: the style is all his. He's also got a good, soulful voice to go along with it, sometimes reminiscent of John Legend as on the swaggering "Bright Lights," where he boasts "You gonna know my name by the end of the night." And by the time of that track, the fourth one on the set, you believe it. The boasts of someone who knows he has something to prove, and the muscle to back it up.

But Clark goes one step further by bringing classic guitar workouts face to face with post-90s Fugees-esque R&B/Rap, "The Life," the Al Green-esque "Things Are Changing" or the smooth, lo-fi title track. He can switch styles between each song, always sound like himself, and not need to blur the lines by forcing his other talents into each piece. He's not a postmodernist mix-and-matcher; when he takes a genre, he takes it for what it is but makes it gold by linking it with common elements to all music, not infusing it with things that don't belong. In this way, he innovates subtly, disguising himself as a throwback while always moving forward. "Travis County" earns praise for being the "Chuck Berry" moment, but he doesn't have to make too much of a detour because he knows how much Chuck Berry there is in everything. Another highlight is the opening raveup, "Ain't Messin 'Round," a horn-tinged triumph of composition, playing, and production. Likewise, an entire history of psychedelia, soul, and hip hop are blended together in a combination of "Third From The Stone" and "If You Love Me Like You Say" that is absolutely seamless.

I will praise this album endlessly. It reveals new things about the potential of each genre it calls up, and of course is a showcase for a dynamite singer/guitarist. It's exactly what a lot of people are looking for every day of their musical lives: Something that sounds like stuff they already like, but surprises with the thrill of the new, shocks them out of their familiar old Hendrix and Clapton albums. It seems like a cheap trick to just do a new version of what others have done, but trust me, if there's one thing I know about music (and there may just be only that) it's this: If it were as easy as it looks, everyone would be doing it.

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