The buzz around guitarist and vocalist Gary Clark Jr. has been deafening. Not since the days of prodigies Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd has the debut of a guitarist been so widely heralded. Some folks are going as far as to compare him to Jimi Hendrix. While Clark’s major label debut, Blak N Blu, is no Electric Ladyland or Axis: Bold As Love, it is a pretty solid effort that reveals a fairly surprising amount of musical diversity. While I guess it would fall under the “blues” category if you had to file it somewhere, Blak‘s got elements of just about every popular musical genre and sub-genre you can think of: from neo-soul to straight ahead rock ‘n roll.
I don’t play an instrument, nor do I have a lot of technical know-how when it comes to instrumental skill. I don’t need it to know that Clark plays his ass off. The critical oohing and aahing over his guitar skills is well-deserved, and considering that the power of his playing is muted by somewhat slick production, I can only imagine how dope he is in a live setting.
Clark’s main collaborators on Blak N Blu are Rob Cavallo (best known for his work spit-shining the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day for radio accessibility) and Mike Elizondo, who has worked with artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Eminem. Elizondo’s resume turns out to be a pretty good fit for this album’s stylistic elasticity. There’s everything from blues-rock to hip-hop flavored soul on this album. All of it is decent, and most of it is very good. This diversity might scare off some folks who are trained by today’s strict radio formatting and, let’s face it: some rock fans don’t dig soul music and vice versa. To be honest, I wasn’t too fond of the more R&B-leaning tracks initially (Clark does sound a little more natural in a more rock-based environment.) A couple of listens later, things fell into place and the more contemporary-sounding tracks sounded much less forced.
The first sign that you’re listening to something special comes during the album’s second track, “When My Train Pulls In.” Clark drops a couple of white-hot guitar solos that are more emotional and soulful than most folks on the radio nowadays would be able to put across using their voices. He goes on to channel Chuck Berry on “Travis County” and goes back even further on the straight-up blues of the aptly titled “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” If D’Angelo existed in the 20s or 30s, “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” would probably have come out sounding like this.
Among the more contemporary pop-sounding cuts, the winning title track reveals a singing voice reminiscent of modern day soul stars like Bilal or Musiq Soulchild. Songs like this and the bouncy “The Life” prove that Clark could be a perfectly servicable R&B singer if he decided to put the guitar down. We’re definitely not recommending that he stop playing-we’re just saying that he’d still be worth listening to even if he did. As it turns out, there’s not a legitimate dud on the entire album, and even the obligatory Hendrix cover (“Third Stone From The Sun”) is worth checking out.
Blak N Blu probably won’t appeal to blues purists due to the handful of radio-friendly R&B tracks (not to mention the shiny production,) but, hey, I dig it. Clark’s got some pretty serious chops, and he can write a song. His first major-label effort might not be perfect, but it definitely indicates some serious potential. Plus, anything that breaks down musical barriers immediately gets a plus in my book.