Gary Clark Jr – Blak And Blu (Warners) CD REVIEW (Warners) CD REVIEW

WHAT A PITY, and a terrible, wasted opportunity. There was a real vibe about Gary Clark Jr, and it was easy to see why. The guy had that effortless way about him, and the way he sang and played that guitar, you could hear the history of the blues, right from its rural beginnings through all its cross-fertilisations and permutations right up to the likes of Hendrix.
But on the evidence of this debut full-length, all those pundits calling him the saviour of the blues had better go take a cold shower.
It’s unclear whether Clark listened to all the hype, but whether he soaked in it all, or rejected it outright, he’s gone and fluffed his big label chance.
Okay, let’s take a step back from the brink. If you heard the earlier sides and the EPs, you’d be expecting that blues saviour, but let’s pretend for a minute that this is the very first time we’ve heard Gary Clark Jr, and that there are no expectations attached to Blak And Blu, at all.
When he gets all the elements working in concord, as on the first track, ‘Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round’, Clark achieves a rare blend of psychedelic shack soul and rock featuring horns, groovy guitar, interesting melodic counterpoints, and foot-tapping groove. And it’s irresistible, even if it does sound a little retro, and the ghost traces of Sly, Hendrix, Prince and Kravitz are evident. It’s a long way from the blues everybody was expecting, but that’s okay.
The second track does offer up some blues, but it’s power blues territory, ala Cream, 1967. It’s pretty convincing, the way he channels that 40-something-year-old sound and brings it alive, all the while making some cool wah-wah-type sounds on that guitar. It’s a good noise, even if it’s all been done before.
But by half-way through the title track, it’s sounding like a bad dream where you’re stuck on Facebook with everyone going ‘WTF?!?’ and making you look at smiley icons with the mouth turned to ‘sad’. The thing is, on ‘Blak And Blu’ and ‘The Life’ in particular, the guy suddenly turns into a sleazy hip-hop operator, and we’re stuck in an elevator with some kid booming contemporary booty R’n’B. There’s nothing going on here, and worse, there’s no connection stylistically between the two versions of Gary Clark Jr: in a blindfold test, you’d never know the two were the same artist, and that’s bad news. Eclecticism can be a great thing, but only when the character of the artist is strong enough to show through.
‘Bright Lights’ features an overdriven guitar and simmering analogue-style drum dynamics, and comes across like an old country blues recontextualised by an electrical current. Not bad. But then he goes and does the unthinkable: ‘Travis County’ is a stupid slice of Jerry Lee Lewis-style 1950s country-laced rock’n’roll. What’s the point, exactly? Just to show that you, too, can play like a jukebox?
By this stage, I’m reeling. It’s like watching a prime gymnastics performer at the Olympics get completely derailed, and knowing that no what they conjure in the last half, they’ll never entirely recover their composure, or the respect of the coach.
‘Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ For Nothin’) is nothing more than a short Lenny Kravitz replicant, and how long is it since we cared about him?
‘Numb’ is pretty good, with its lumbering beast ‘Voodoo Chile’ power and maximum distortion, but that which has gone before has somewhat numbed me by this stage.
Then, along comes the ridiculous, greasy soul-into-doo-wop falsetto of ‘Please Come Home’, and the Kravitz in analogue soul-funk mode ‘Things Are Changin’, and a pretty skilled if slightly pointless combination of Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ and Johnny Taylor’s ‘If You Love Me Like You Say’.
After that, it’s back to the groovy psychedelia of the first track with ‘You Saved Me’, and an acoustic outro, and when it’s all over you realise what a mixed up, ill-defined mess it all is. Blak & Blu should have been Clark’s moment of victory. Instead, the worst moments have the uncanny effect of mitigating against the best, and we’re left with an album that fluffs it, big time. GARY STEEL
Music = 2.5/5
Sound = 3/5

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