How can a serious bluesman thrive in the age of Auto-Tune? That’s the question Gary Clark Jr. grapples with on his major label debut. Since his teens, Clark has been the young titan of Texas blues, coming out of Austin in the early 2000s with a smoothly long-suffering voice and one hell of a mean guitar tone, playing solos that claw and scream their stories with ornery splendor. He’s a full-fledged guitar hero of the classic school.
And that’s all he would need to be, if he only wanted to spend his career playing for roots-music die-hards and recording for his own Hotwire Unlimited, the Austin label that released his albums from 2004 to 2010. But Clark, 28, has a different trajectory and a much larger goal: to reach his own generation, the one that grew up on hip-hop and R&B.
Clark spreads his musical bets on Blak and Blu. Instead of having one signature sound, he tries a dozen, delving into modern R&B, retro soul, psychedelia and garage rock. A handful of the album’s songs are cherry-picked from Clark’s Hotwire catalog, remade in studios that make everything sound bigger and tougher. Abetted by producers Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), Clark is clearly aware that young listeners have heard the Black Keys, Prince and the Roots. Although most songs have a live, hand-played flavor, a few of them – including the title track – tilt toward the static, looplike grooves of hip-hop.
The album’s core is still the blues. Clark dips into the historical timeline, sampling a juke joint’s worth of 20th-century styles: from the rural slide-guitar picking of “Next Door Neighbor Blues” to the desolate tidings and incendiary lead guitar of “When My Train Pulls In” to the Cream-y riffing and layering of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.” But Clark won’t be genre-bound. “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” is pushy, updated Stax-Volt soul with Clark’s fuzztone leading the charge of a horn section. “Things Are Changin'” makes another Memphis move with a fat Al Green-style backbeat.
As an album, Blak and Blu makes for a bumpy ride. The roaring, distortion-soaked blues of “Numb” – which sounds something like Stevie Ray Vaughan tackling “Come Together” – upstages the falsetto croon and string arrangement of “Please Come Home.” The souped-up Chuck Berry boogie of “Travis County” collides with “The Life,” which has Clark ruminating over woozy, echoey keyboards: “Can’t go on like this/Knowing that I’m just getting high.” Clark and Warner Bros. clearly expect listeners to carve their own playlists from the album’s 13 tracks.
Outside the structures of the blues, Clark is still a journey-man songwriter, sometimes settling for easy rhymes and singsong melodies, as he does in “Blak and Blu,” which aspires to the thoughtfulness of Marvin Gaye, wondering, “How do we get lifted/How do we not go insane?” Give Clark credit for striving to be something more than a blues-rock throwback and singing from a troubled heart. And hope that he gets through the narrow portals of pop radio. But on this album, it’s still his blues that cut deepest.
Listen to Blak and Blu: