The Robert Cray Band: Twenty

The Robert Cray Band

Hey, man — check these out. You like?

They’re called “dungarees” or “blue jeans”. Yeah, that’s right. They’re made of thick, woven cotton called “denim”, died dark blue and sewn for strength and comfort. Wash ’em, wear ’em, and they’ll be your favorite piece of clothing. Guaranteed.

Your first pair of jeans — talk about a perfect 10. But time passes, the knees wear through on a couple pairs, next thing you know you’re a regular down at The Gap, picking up pair after pair, letting the denim romance fade. Do you even have a favorite pair any more? Do a good pair of jeans still seem like part of your identity?

This is what’s going on with The Robert Cray Band. I remember the group’s major label debut, Strong Persuader in 1986, smacking me across the side of my face — that keening-sweet voice! that stinging blues guitar! that Memphis soul! Cray was opening for the Stones, he was co-writing songs with Eric Clapton, and the evidence of his startling talent was right there in 10 original tunes, each one about cheating and the deep-down facts of betrayal. Man, Cray was Stevie Ray without the flashy showing off. He was a one-man blues revival. He was a 10-plus.

But like your old jeans, he got easy to take for granted. Bobby C turned out a string of consistently superb albums, channeling the urban blues that was his grounding, but always leavening it with down-home soul and ballad singing even as he kept his guitar work pure and distortion free. He was a guy who could go head-to-head with Johnny Copeland and Albert King yet also knew how to get some radio play. But how many very very good Robert Cray albums does one man need? At some point along the line, more than likely, you stopped paying close attention.

And now arrives Cray’s 14th disc, Twenty, making it that much tougher to savor the diamond sparkle of his music. On the one hand, this is a vintage Cray date. No fancy guest stars, no Memphis horns, no layered background vocals, no artifice or cheap posing. On the other hand, well — it’s yet another classy Cray collection that does not clearly distinguish itself. Apparently it consists mostly of first takes and was done on little-to-no rehearsal, but what else is new? Most all of Cray’s music sounds fresh and tight, music made by a crack band that perfected its art some while ago. In short: it’s great stuff, kind of like of Cray’s other great stuff.

Standout tracks aren’t hard to find. “I’m Walkin'” is a thick slab of soul-blues, with Cray voice, his steely guitar and Jim Pugh’s big Hammond organ generating an ongoing conversation of joyful release. Cray’s guitar obbligato around his singing has never sounded better. “My Last Regret” is a slower blues groove framed by Pugh’s acoustic piano sound, with Cray starting out in his gentle falsetto: “I want to see you burn all the way down / I want to see your ashes all over the ground / Then I will know that I can’t forget about my last regret.” Nice.

“I Forgot to Be Your Lover” is a tender track you can imagine being from the Ben E. King songbook, with Cray harmonizing with himself on some passages, and the title track is also slow and soulful, trafficking in an echo-y live sound that frames a song about the war in Iraq. The closer, “Two Steps From the End”, is a grinding blues with a big organ sound that leaves the band plenty of room to play around Cray’s vocal. All of this stuff is generous like a well-fitting leather jacket. Like — sure — a great pair of jeans.

But, as on a goodly number of Cray’s mid-career records, there are a couple of false notes here too. “It Doesn’t Show” is an impressionistic, bluesy poem that does without the drum kit and feels logy and thin. “I Know You Will” goes for a fancy arrangement with a handful of Steely Dan chords and an over-clever bridge section that just doesn’t play to the Cray Band’s strengths. While we Dan-Fans out there pine for the rumored Donald Fagen 2005 solo album, there really isn’t anyone out there who should be trying to sing like The Nightfly — and certainly not a man like Cray, who can serenade angels.

But a minor clam or two from Robert Cray would be a minor classic from many other artists. The problem here is not some failure on the part of the artist. The problem is in our hearts. We slip those jeans on — the black leather jacket too — and we just expect them to fit us perfectly. We know they’ll make us look good. We take all the credit for their easygoing charm. You dress down like that, and then maybe slip Twenty on the stereo and invite some friends over. The apartment is bathed in a blues groove that is never too clever but silky sweet. Your taste in music is impeccable, of course. But are you really listening?

“Who is that?” you’re friends might ask.

“That?” You’re real casual about it. “Oh, that’s just Robert Cray. You remember him, right?”

“Yeah. He’s incredible. Man, that’s good stuff. He’s still around, huh?”

“Sure,” you say. “And he is incredible, you’re right. I almost forgot.”

Take a moment to listen up. Everybody loves Robert Cray.

RATING 7 / 10