Robert Cray – Nothin But Love (2012)

I don’t remember the last time, outside of a live performance, when Robert Cray’s guitar sounded so present.

Nothin But Love, produced by Kevin Shirley and due August 27, 2012 in the UK and August 28 in North America from Provogue Records, puts Cray’s instrument front and center — then builds some of his most interesting collaborative moments around that signature sound.

“(Won’t Be) Coming Home,” for instance, is a great story song, centered on a picture from a hotel room — sent from a love long gone. The song inverts the expected blues narrative, however, in that this character is still setting the table for someone who isn’t coming home, even as he comes to the painful realization (illustrated within the frenzied unburdening of Cray’s solo) that, deep down, he’s glad she’s gone.

“Worry” takes a sensual Spanish tinge and amps it up with a churchy call-and-response, all surrounding the nights of quiet desperation for a man who waits for his unrequited to return. “Side Dish” discards all of that for a propulsive early-rock groove, sounding more like Chuck Berry than B.B. King.

“A Memo,” meanwhile, is sweetly soulful, and maybe a little Allmans-ish with those deeply nostalgic electric piano fills. “I’m Done Cryin’” finds Cray at the bottom of a brown bottle, riffing with a dark dejectedness and singing with a broken pride amid a swooning group of strings.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Get stirring new insights into the Robert Cray Band from original member Curtis Salgado, who also played a key role in the creation of the Blues Brothers.]

For all of its interesting sideroads, though, Nothin’ But Love also offers plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. Tracks like “I’ll Always Remember You” and “Blues Get Off My Shoulder” are tried-and-true mainstream bluesers, with forehead-slapping horns and furtive figures from Cray’s axe, but even here there are enough wrinkles — in the lyric, in the licks — to keep things from edging into the routine. Meanwhile, “Fix This” and “Great Big Old House” harken back to the upbeat blues of Cray’s earliest records, and in the most pleasing of ways.

“Sadder Days” finishes Nothin But Love with one more surprise, as a veteran band that includes bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Jim Pugh and drummer Tony Braunagel play against the title’s sad melancholy. The song instead races forward like a breaking sunrise — reminding us, one more time, what makes Cray’s music so personable, so relatable, so special.

There’s a reason Cray has won five Grammys, sold more records than any other guy playing the blues in the last 25 years, become the youngest ever living inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame. His records are fun to listen to, and perhaps none more — certainly for guitar fans — than this one.

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Robert Cray. Click through the title for complete reviews …

ROBERT CRAY, THIS TIME (2009): Robert Cray’s era of peak popularity from the mid-eighties to the early nineties was due to his strong crossover appeal. Back then, he was a blues man at heart, but poured in a lot of soul and just a little bit of rock. His songs were modernized twists on the old themes of love found, love lost and every facet of relationships in-between. Cray had the perfect pipes to fit this style. And let’s not overlook his clean, impeccable guitar playing, either. Twenty years and many albums later and Cray stays close to this winning combination. Someone could easily level the criticism that his records don’t vary much at all, and it’s true, one Robert Cray album sounds like any other Robert Cray album for the most part. But if you dig that Cray sound like we do, then that’s quite alright.

ROBERT CRAY – TWENTY (2005): My dad introduced me to Robert Cray long ago and, even into a new century, little had changed with Cray: He was still putting out dependable, if unspectacular, albums of his smooth brand of blues — a sound that fills in that overlooked category of music that can be played in the background for pretty much anyone and it won’t offend in any way. Cray’s blues are soulful, but have enough sheen that they aren’t going to drag people’s mood down. Yet, they’re real, and therefore it never feels like inconsequential background music. Guitar-afficianados still find plenty to enjoy in his well-developed sound.

DEEP CUTS – ROBERT CRAY, “MIDNIGHT STROLL” (1990): This album sports an impressive cache of well written and well played songs, varying from the rolling bass line of the tough “The Forecast (Calls For Pain)” — which became a moderate hit — to the sassy soul of “Consequences” to the staggered rhythm of “Holdin’ Court.” Having Al Green’s Memphis Horns providing some Stax moods on most of the tracks makes it all the mo’ better. And while I can listen to this CD all the way through without skipping any songs, it’s that last track I eagerly anticipate. The song of the same name as the album, “Midnight Stroll” is blues strut the underscores the confidence of the narrator about “all the love we’re gonna make” tonight as he arrives in his “long black Caddy.” Jimmy Pugh’s greasy organ provides a solid slab of soul upon which Cray emotes and howls over. And when it’s cuttin’ time, Cray delivers.

ROBERT CRAY, STRONG PERSUADER (1986): Cray was very obviously influenced by Albert Collins — who burned a Telecaster legend into place at Cray’s high school graduation. But, he later became a kind of new-wave Moses, the guy who made it OK for most folks to admit to liking the blues again. Call him yuppie if you want, but at least he doesn’t play rock and pass it off as blues, as do so many of the new so-called crossover artists. Singing something like O.V. Wright (the great 1960s singer on Memphis’ Hi Records), Cray also plays in the crisp, crying fashion of B.B. King. One well-placed guitar note might be all he hits, while others would play three or four.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.