Ragged and raw, then as suave as a velvet wide-brimmed hat, Gary Clark Jr.’s long-awaited full-length debut is so eclectic as to make the term sound somehow confining and staid. It has the sizzling energy of the best Stax recordings, all of the heart of a classic rusty-bucket blues, but also a modern feel that will give it credibility with a new generation.
For the uninitiated, Blak and Blu, due October 22, 2012, from Warner Bros. Records, finds this Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter creating at a furious pace. Of course, Clark references a series of earlier EPs here, but that takes nothing away from the many moments where he works with fresh paint, fashioning a sweeping, impressionistic collection of African American styles. They don’t make records like this anymore, both in the sense that Blak and Blu aspires sometimes to more than it could possibly reach, and also that it pushes so hard against the boundaries that tend to enclose musical subgenres nowadays.
The opening “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” for instance, has the same kind of garage-band fuzz that gives the Black Keys such a timeless crunch, but Clark’s vocal swagger comes from a different place — the slow-cooked soul of Otis Redding, rather than insouciance of college-rock. “When My Train Pulls In” settles into a nastier, more dangerous place, as Clark combines a shotgun-shack rattling riff with a gurgling, deeply menacing vocal — and a solo that sounds like steel wheels grinding to a sparks-throwing stop. Then there’s “Bright Lights,” which finds a grinding pathos as Clark tries to drown his sorrows only to find the hole left behind simply to deep to fill.
If moments like the title track and “The Life” nearly stumble into the silky-smooth opaqueness of today’s slickster R&B, Clark never stays in one place long enough to really lose momentum on Blak and Blu.
“Travis County” ramps up into a wild-eyed rockabilly that likely puts a twinkle — or, I guess, another twinkle — in Little Richard’s heavily mascaraed eye. Listen closely, though, to Clark’s sad tale of getting pushed around by the law after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. This may sound like fun and games, but there’s a darker resonance moving just beneath the surface of even the uptempo tracks.
Clark channels Lenny Kravitz at his afro-shaking, echo-laden funky-metal best on “Glitter Ain’t Gold,” but the message is one of sobering resilience. “Numb” bursts out with an apocalyptic groove, and a love-gone-bad-wrong theme to match. Clark’s Motown redux on “Please Come Home” then arrives like a dream sequence — so sweetly conveyed is its love-struck sentiment, and so perfectly conveyed is its string-laden desolation.
“Things Are Changin,’” a retro-cool paean to longing, is then tossed out on its throwback, bell-bottomed ass by the subsequent almost volcanic deconstruction of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” — which somehow, someway, then morphs into Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Say You Love Me.” Clark adds a dollop of Prince-style sexy gospel to “You Saved Me,” then exits amid the floor-board rearranging, dusty-boot stomp of “Next Door Neighbor Blues.”
In the end, it feels like a valedictory, so largely complete is Clark’s grasp of this stunningly varied array of sounds. Except that this is, after all, his first honest-to-goodness, real-life album. That Gary Clark Jr. might just get better kind of boggles the mind.
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