Gary Clark Jr. is a man. His guitar is bold, his drums are muscular and his words are blunt instruments, hammering right to the heart of pain, struggle and defiance. It could even be said that Clark is the last man standing in a generation of oily-chested R&B crooners begging for affection in lilting falsetto, and willowy rockers warbling their way through self-indulgent angst. What type of man is Clark? A blues man, rooted in the raw rhythms and gutbucket pathos of the genre that spawned both of the above, but largely stripped of the technological polish and mid-tempo malaise that has recently mired its offspring. His major label debut, Blak & Blu kicks open the door and comes in swinging, like only a man can.
“Ain’t Messin ‘Round” sets the tone with a full arrangement, complete with double time drums, robust horns, and a blazing guitar solo from Clark himself. Clocking in at a crisp four minutes, the song hits like a shot of adrenaline. But Blak & Blu is generally at it’s most assured when Clark is fronting the type of free-flowing, extended jam sessions that have made his live performances a highlight of countless music festivals. “When My Train Pulls In” brings to mind the electric blues of Jimi Hendrix, complete with two extended guitar solos, each successfully transforming the mood of the song. The mid-tempo burner, “Bright Lights” makes the tried and true blues trope of country boy broken by urban debauchery feel fresh, thanks in large part to the Gen Y swagger that Clark brings to the tale of night lives grown tired in the city that never sleeps.
Clark’s songwriting is not yet as strong as his musicianship. His lyrics sometimes fall on the wrong side of the line between direct and clumsy. The heavy handed self-pity of “The Life” feels more like a Drake album cut than a Muddy Waters platter. And, while propulsive rhythms and full arrangements are generally enough to sustain the album’s hard driving uptempo tracks, slower selections like the title track reveal loose and tentative melodies.
Still, there is an earnestness to Blak & Blu, even in its bumpier moments, that holds your attention, even if it’s the testosterone fueled bombast that initially grabs it by the throat. It’s that ability to command the foreground that makes Gary Clark Jr. stand out as a man among boys in an era when so much music is made to simply blend into the background.