Gary Clark Jr.
The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (Warner Bros.)
Reviewed by Michael Toland, Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
What's a guitar slinger to do when the thrill of a solo fades? In the case of Gary Clark Jr., you follow a double live LP heavy on six-string fireworks with a one-man-band studio album that establishes a more distinctive vision by putting the axe in a support position. Self-producing himself locally at Arlyn, Austin's great blues-guitar hope downplays the lead-centric style that made him a hot commodity at festivals. Instead, Clark pivots his tunesmithery around lubed rhythms and soulful vocal melodies, evoking decades of R&B without forswearing the blues. Good call. Sticky-sweet ballad "Our Love" and the ironically warm soul of "Cold Blooded" need little embellishment for maximum efficacy. Make no mistake: There's plenty of guitar action. Yet most of it sticks to riffs and fills, so slow-burn funk and an alluring falsetto can take the lead. Even when Clark lets his guitar step forward, as on the heavy funk of "Grinder" and the loud rock of "Stay," he shuns the fuzz-soaked tones of previous work for an icy, thrusting sound indebted to B.B. King and Albert Collins. Spare arrangements, mid-fi production, and strong singing give the songs an organic feel, letting the performances breathe. Musical aesthetic isn't the only facet that's opened up, either. When Clark strips bare to ask "Lord, I need your helping hand" on acoustic plea "Church," and sings "This music is our healing" on spiritual center "The Healing," there's no mistaking his conviction, nor his desire to move beyond solo-happy self-absorption. That's risky business after wowing guitar nerds, but one that pays off handsomely here. By sidestepping guitar herodom, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim stakes out territory Gary Clark Jr. can proudly call his own.