[24 October 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Gary Clark Jr.‘s Blak & Blu might just be the single most anticipated rock release of 2012. Actually, it may also be the most talked-about major label debut since his recent pal, Alicia Keys, burst on the scene in 2001 with Songs In A Minor, save for the always-exaggerated hype that usually surrounds releases from the hip-hop world (here’s lookin’ at you, Drake).
The Austin, Texas-bred Clark has been tirelessly working the festival circuit all summer. He’s received acclaim from such heavyweights as Paul McCartney, Kirk Hammett and Roger Waters. His Bright Lights EP found its way onto countless best-of lists for 2011. And since he initially began performing at the age of 12, Clark has shared stages with everybody from Mick Jagger to B.B. King to Dave Matthews to Sheryl Crow to Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton, to basically anyone else in between. He’s been called a prodigy and he’s been labeled blues music’s current-day savior. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last 24 months, and you pay even the slightest bit of attention to rock music and/or guitars, chances are you’ve at least run across his name, whether it be on a line-up card for one of the major music gatherings around the world, or in a “who’s next” feature that magazines and websites love to publish.
Yes. Gary Clark Jr. is unavoidable.
He’s also somewhat pedestrian on this much-ballyhooed Warner Bros. release. The glimpses of brilliance are there—the dude sure can shred when he wants to—but the collection as a whole is spotty and at times confusing, a classic case of the reputation roller-coaster reaching a dip in the tracks for which even the highest of peaks couldn’t properly apologize. Disappointment might be the most obvious word, though it’s also probably the most unfair.
Why is that? None of what makes Blak & Blu suffer comes from a lack of talent. “When My Train Pulls In” slithers along with a groovy backdrop and a dark undertone that creates one of the better blues atmospheres in modern day memory. At 7:45, it gives Clark the ability to spread out, and by the time the final three minutes roll around, he does just that, noodling with hammer-ons and offering up what feels like an organic moment of psychedelia with his quite capable band. The track begs for a 22-minute live version to be recorded somewhere, and conventional wisdom suggests that this particular composition never comes in below 16 minutes whenever he tackles it in a concert setting. Plus, he’s got a bleeding sense of attitude that helps drive the performance vocally in a way that is deliciously unexpected.
Conversely, it’s also that voice that gets him in trouble. Both “The Life” and the album’s title track are mind-boggling (if not simply poor) attempts at crossing over into the pop music world. Here, the 28-year-old relies on his crooning to carry the songs and the result isn’t just perplexing; it’s also detrimental. While “Blak And Blu” recalls a smooth mid-‘90s R&B single that could have been sung by anyone from 112 to Tony Rich, “The Life” opts for Top 40 aspirations by way of repetition and despondence. “I can’t go on like this / Knowin’ that I’m just gettin’ by / I can’t go on like this / Knowin’ that I’m just gettin’ high,” Clark sings in an astutely generic play for pop poignancy. Both tracks overshadow their brothers and sisters by being so strikingly out of place and weak, even by contemporary soul standards. You can’t blame Clark for trying to land a pop hit or two, but you have to wonder why the attempt comes off so poorly when he’s shown such promise in other areas of his arsenal.
Take “Numb”, for instance. A sludge of soulful rock, the track bends fuzzy guitars and adds a Hendrix-like vocal that evokes the best parts of Woodstock-era heaviness. “Glitter Ain’t Gold” rides a wonderfully moving riff all the way through a ride filled with sparse blues improvs and vocal harmonies that make the entire production big enough to fill stadiums. “Travis County” is the obligatory rock-a-billy romp that could double as the B-side to the theme from Saved By The Bell or a simple Chuck Berry throwaway. It’s not the most memorable of the bunch, but it does provide an old-school boogie that energizes the album midway through the set.
That said, Clark is unquestionably at his best whenever he allows himself time to breathe. Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun”, a tune Clark has said was originally supposed to run 20-plus minutes on the album, is equal parts expansive and fascinating. It proves how much fun the guitarist can be as he launches into Albert Collins’ “If You Love Me Like You Say” all the while proving his ability to maintain a funk prowess that adds a special kind of layer to his playing.
But there’s a mighty fine difference between being Jimi Hendrix and being Lenny Kravitz, and Blak & Blu suggests that Gary Clark Jr. may fall somewhere in the middle. He certainly has the ability to follow in the footsteps of the former, though too often he slips into a glam vibe that leaves the listener longing for a more visceral version of the artist. Actually, if there’s one single element of the entire collection that is truly disheartening, it’s the amount of gloss that forces its way into the otherwise riveting “Ain’t Messin Round” or the moody “You Saved Me”. It’s not that this diminishes any of the performances, but those skin tight production tricks make the songs sound cleaner than they need to be, resulting in the “blue” portion of the blues seeming a bit too light a color.
Thus, it must be asked: Is Blak & Blu a colossal failure and is Gary Clark Jr. truly the One Who Will Save the Blues? The simple answers, of course, are no and maybe. Though if you look a little harder, you might find chinks in a once invincible armor seemingly constructed to help launch the career of what many already call a legend. As it stands, Blak & Blu certainly isn’t legendary. But it’s a pretty good start.