After spending most of this past summer touring with John Hiatt, blues guitarist Robert Cray is still quite enthused about his latest album. And for good reason! While recent albums ventured somewhat into slightly different arrangements and patterns, Cray was quite comfortable offering up one blues-heavy “done wrong” song after another. Fans would always lap up this song from Cray, but it was more a case of being stuck in a creative rut than anything else. As a result, his new album is still blues-centric, but there is a lot more going on behind the scenes thankfully.
It’s the funky jug band opener “Survivor” that makes this record soar from the get-go. “Life was a party / That’s all we knew”, Cray sings as the funky bass line ambles along at an enjoyable yet leisurely Dylanesque pace. And Cray also has more confidence in the song than he has in recent memory. It’s too bad he didn’t loosen up this much an album or two ago. Regardless, it sets the tone for the rest of the album. And Cray also gets a tad political here, mentioning oil in the track’s latter half and current global events. “Up in the Sky” is a touch of Middle Eastern psychedelic sounds before heading into the radio-friendly, adult contemporary model that Clapton seems to create at will.
“Back Door Slam” finds Cray in a comfortable niche, reverting to his trademark blues style that has an edgier quality to it, making it murkier before giving a few quality solos. “When I play guitar they all know my name” Cray quips during the track, and with such playing, it’s no wonder! “I Didn’t Know” oozes Motown soul with Cray resembling the ghosts of either Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding. It’s a slow and soulful tune that makes you want to grab your better half by their love handles and slow dance. If there’s one slight problem with the track, it lies in it dragging on just a tad too long. A tighter ending would’ve been better.
“Your Pal” is another bouncy effort that straddles the blues pop genres, but it doesn’t have that oomph to get it over the top. Sure, the horns add a nice accent, but it’s not enough to keep the song moving along. By the first minute, Cray seems to have spent everything that he has for the track, not knowing where to turn. But despite this, he manages to keep it together and passable. “Lotta Lovin’” attempts to recapture the mood of “I Didn’t Know”, but sounds far too forced, making it a tad like light pop. Cray has a few moments that are quite nice, but overall it’s just a road he shouldn’t travel too often.
“What You Need (Good Man)” is signature Cray, a drum tempo that is deep in the blues but with enough contemporary blues licks to make it intriguing. Cray is one of the finest guitar players around, whether you are talking about rock, pop, blues or any genre that uses the axe. But what separates Cray from so many is his meticulous playing that oozes feeling with each note, something that isn’t easy to do. And he seems to let the music flow through him for most of the record, especially on this song. He doesn’t go for flair over substance, which is a mark of greatness. “Spare Some Love” is probably the third best track of the album after the opener and “I Didn’t Know”. Cray makes the bounce in this toe-tapping, head-bobbing ditty definitely worthwhile.
“Distant Shore” is a miscue that has some seventies sounds and is the worst song of the ten presented. Another political or socially aware song Cray should leave to others. Cray has made another fine impression with this album despite a few obvious drawbacks and selections.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.