I once read somewhere that it’s easy to take a musician like Robert Cray for granted. Of course, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was true. Trends come and go, music sales spike and fall, but Cray has been cranking out consistently good soul/R&B music on a regular basis since he first snagged our attention in the mid-‘80s. The longest his fans ever had to wait for a new release is two years, and that’s pretty steady for a guy in his 60s. His singing voice has yet to show any wear and the songs he chooses to write and record never yield any ugly, unwanted stepchildren. When someone runs a ship that smoothly for such a long time, it is indeed very easy to take them for granted.
The same can be said for Memphis session musicians. If rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t strictly born in Memphis, it still went through a heavily formative period among Beale Street veterans. Those grooves, those beats, and those fat horn sounds were once edgy enough to make parents of teenagers nervous. Obviously, times have changed. The racket of a good Memphis-based backing band has become another piece of American music that we can all easily take for granted. Despite the cultural shifts, the members of Hi Rhythm remain a reliable gaggle of beat doctors who can summon a thick groove at a moment’s notice. Forsaking the usual name of the Robert Cray Band, the legendary guitarist has teamed up with the legendary session musicians to make the generically-titled Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm. Hey, greater albums have suffered under worse names.
Drummer Steve Jordan, who previously produced Cray’s excellent 1999 release Take Your Shoes Off, helms the Hi Rhythm sessions. Leroy Hodges lays down the bass, and Archie Turner takes turns with Charles Hodges on the Wurlitzer organ and the Fender Rhodes. Trumpet, trombone, and sax lines are caked onto the mix when appropriate. Throw in Cray’s soulful voice and unaffected guitar tone, and you have a nice helping of musical comfort food. Play it for someone who doesn’t know any better, and it might pass for an Al Green record. The only downside is that some of the tunes go on for a little too long.
Like all of Robert Cray’s previous albums, the songwriting credits read like a revolving door. Cray himself wrote only three songs here, one being the mid-tempo stomp against Donald Trump, “Just How Low”—“If you want to build a wall / Build it around yourself”. His other two originals, “The Way We Are” and “You Had My Heart”, are too subtle and lengthy to be standouts. The Sir Mac Rice and Judd Phillips composition “Honey Bad” is also guilty of stretching a thin idea too long as Cray sings about a woman who can’t cook but makes up for it in other departments.
The rest of the album picks up the slack plenty. “Don’t Steal My Love” shivers with a Summer-of-Love Stratocaster sound and “I’m With You” doesn’t take itself too seriously as an old-fashioned doo-wop (complete with a cornball backing chorus). The first three tracks, Bill Withers’s “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”, Charles Jerue’s “You Must Believe in Yourself” and Sir Mack Rice’s “I Don’t Care”, are all perfect little ditties of urban soul that stir, if not excite. After those, Tony Joe White’s “Aspen, Colorado” may feel like a slight letdown, even though it’s not. It’s just a Where-Can-A-Young-Man-Find-His-Place ballad by Tony Joe White that effortlessly uses slice-of-life lyrics like “I got a letter from my mama”.
When fans and critics take a step back to evaluate Robert Cray’s recording career at a later date, the consistently high quality of his work might mean that his collaboration with Hi Rhythm could be overlooked. But that’s the risk you run when you are a musical force that has been taken for granted for so long. What’s better, Some Rainy Morning or Sweet Potato Pie? Time Will Tell or Twenty? If your answers to these questions run along the lines of “I dunno, man, they’re all just good!”, then you stand to loose nothing with Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.