In the early 1970’s, Bruce Springsteen faced a problem. He was an utterly engaging live performer that somehow needed to capture the spirit of his live shows on record. He had a myriad of influences that he was trying to synthesize into a cohesive sound. And he was being hailed as “The Next Dylan,” the savior for a new generation of singer-songwriters. We all know that Springsteen turned out to be one of the great heroes of American music, but in 1973, that future was all but written. Instead, all we had was the promise of Greetings from Asbury Park – an album filled with true classics, and memorable duds. It was an artist finding his voice, and we were let in on the process. Two years later, that would pay off in full with the miracle that is Born to Run, but in the meantime the world was the beneficiary of some vivid experimentation.
This is roughly the same spot in which Gary Clark Jr. currently finds himself. GCJ has made his reputation on his stellar live shows, and now faces the challenge of translating that energy to wax. He has been pegged as the savior of blues, the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he has influences from reggae to hip-hop and back that he is trying to incorporate into his sound. All of that is coming out on his uneven, yet fulfilling debut album, Blak and Blu.
I have seen GCJ three times this year, and every single time, without fail, it was an incredible show. Clark’s stage presence and his mastery of his instrument produced an organic experience that just left me feeling more alive every time. That sort of power almost never translates well to a record, and Blak and Blu suffers slightly from that let down. And it’s hard to reconcile the full brass band on “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” or the dreamy doo-wop backing vocals and string ensemble on “Please Come Home” with the lean, mean, blues-making machine that is Gary Clark Jr.’s live band, but that doesn’t make those moments bad. Just different.
The bigger concern I have is with the record’s overall cohesion. Clark is clearly most comfortable in the blues milieu. Tracks like “When My Train Pulls In,” “Bright Lights” (note-for-note the same as the version on last year’s EP), “Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say,” and “Numb” all jump out of the speakers with an indescribable vitality. Each one features GCJ’s distinctive 21st century take on the blues: a gritty, riff-y, hard-nosed, heavy, powerful rock n’ roll that bears little resemblance to the 12-bar blues most people associate with blues musicians. In fact, when that standard blues progression shows up on the cover “If You Love Me Like You Say,” it stands out for how little it resembles the rest of the album. In these tracks, Clark has developed an astoundingly original style.
It’s clear, though, from the rest of the album that Clark does not want to be thought of as “that blues guy.” There’s the neo-soul on “Blak and Blu,” the funk rave-up of “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” the boogie woogie of “Travis County,” the slick (but forgettable) millennial alterna-rock of “Glitter Ain’t Gold,” and the distorted (and overly long) slow-jam “You Saved Me.” Some of these work better than others, but there are two tracks that are worth particular mention.
“The Life” is a middle-of-the-road adult contemporary pop song about regretting slacking off that also celebrates slacking off. Hitting this track the first time through the record was a jarring experience; it’s such a radical departure sonically from the rest of the record that it’s hard to digest initially. It would be much more at home on the playlist of your local KISS-FM station than on an album with the gritty classic “Bright Lights.” Yet, after my third time through the album, this was the song I was singing. It’s impossible to resist because it’s such a catchy fucking thing.
Ten minutes later, “Please Come Home” also seems to come out of nowhere. A sappy doo-wop song, it features GCJ doing a surprisingly good falsetto on the lead vocals. My knee-jerk reaction was to loathe this achingly sweet number. But at the 1:37 mark, Clark’s guitar breaks out into the sort of solo that is worth a thousand words. For a solid minute, Clark rains down a flurry of notes that recall Prince on “Purple Rain” or Eddie Hazel on “Maggot Brain.” The solo conveys a heart-wrenching sorrow and pain that turns the second half of the song around.
Blak and Blu is a hodgepodge of Clark’s songs from the last several years of his life. It plays almost like a greatest hits album, partially thanks to its terrible sequencing. “The Life” into “Glitter Ain’t Gold” is almost as jarringly awful as “Numb” into “Please Come Home,” pretty much destroying the flow of the entire middle of the album. But the songs are so disparate, so all over the map, that sequencing this album is almost an impossible task. Somewhere along the line, Clark will have an album full of those solos from “Please Come Home,” where he melds his distinctive blues style with other genres into something unique and moving. Too often here, however, he wades through pastiche in search of his voice.