Gary Clark Jr.
Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.)
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Nov. 16, 2012
Gary Clark Jr.Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.)
A Stax-like blare of horns, curlicue guitar hook tickling the left channel, and a barrage of steam-engine riffs pulling into the station all at once set the proverbial stage for Gary Clark Jr.'s declaration of intent on Blak and Blue fuse "Ain't Messin 'Round": "I don't believe in competition/ Ain't nobody else like me around." Two out of three ain't bad. The guitarist's full-length, major label debut messes around plenty, initial passes feeling uncannily like a corporate spaghetti-testing session. Instead of song lyrics, the CD liner notes come packed with production credits for each of the 13 songs. What will stick – blues, rock, electro soul, R&B? Shockingly, almost all of it, but it's not always pretty. If the riff fits, then Hendrix indeed rules the comparisons roost, beginning on "Ain't Messin 'Round" rejoinder "When My Train Pulls In," nicking and cobbling together hints of "Voodoo Chile" and maybe the electric gypsy's cover of "Drivin' South." In fact, the jumble of Blak and Blu, which smooths pleasurably over time, evokes Hendrix's sprawling third disc, 1968's titanic double LP Electric Ladyland, a volcanic work of primordial chaos blotting out the sun. Blak and Blu throbs more like a lava lamp turned upside, a red-line splat of molten nightlife served on a huge sonic bed only achieved by major label productions. Approaching eight minutes, "When My Train Pulls In" could thunder for a whole album side, but that's when Blak and Blu pivots on its title track with silky New Jack soul. "Bright Lights," back from Clark's national debut, proves a welcome return, because other than musicians and labels, everyone knows EPs rarely satisfy. Back-to-back with perhaps the best cut on Blak and Blu – the stock-car stomp "Travis County," a straight-ahead rave-up not overly thought, plotted, or executed – "Bright Lights" and its knock-out successor could have constituted the entire bottom line herein, but instead of a direct Are You Experienced uppercut, GCJ and WB have sought the free-flowing diversity of Axis: Bold as Love. Starting on LP midpoint "Glitter Ain't Gold (Jumpin' for Nothin')," written in part with Doyle Bramhall II, who helped sponsor Clark at Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Festival in Chicago and thus the rock star fission that followed, Blak and Blu turns into a stylistic stew. The song itself opens hot and heavy, huffing Zeppelin, but four minutes later we're in contemporary R&B land. "Numb" follows with the antidote – slow blues – but its own counterbalance comes next in the pure falsetto soul of "Please Come Home" and late-night studio console companion "Things Are Changin'." Before all is lost to this modern-urban format, Clark reels it back in by mashing up Hendrix and Little Johnny Taylor with "Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say." Again, one gets the sense the local could do this in his sleep, pair Albert Collins and Bootsy Collins, or Johnny "Guitar" Watson to Little Willie John. "You Saved Me" notches pure soul filler before the National Steel blues of closer "Next Door Neighbor Blues" evokes filmmaker John Sayles' backwoods blues fable Honeydripper, which starred Clark. That leaves "The Life," written from the POV of an L.A. rock star knowing that he can't go on like this, "just getting by ... just getting high." The first verse drips with what it must be like for Gary Clark Jr. to have ridden a shooting star thus far. Approximately: "Well I wake up around 10 in the morning, feeling crazy, feeling horny/ From the night before 'cause I was up 'til four in the morning/So I take a long trip and then I take out my song strips/When I sit down to write, I always look to God to help me see the light/But I know, that I ain't been living right/And I know, that I can live by the night/But it's so hard for me just to put it down/So hard for me to pass up the crown when it's been passed down/I'm sitting on the throne and sometimes I feel in this world that I've been thrown in, not been shown in, and I don't know when to slow it down." Then the punchline: "But this is the life, life, life, life, the life."