“It’s been a long time since a young bluesman was hailed as a rock star,” Michael Corcoran wrote of Austin’s Gary Clark Jr. in the October Texas Monthly, and now the 28-year-old’s eagerly anticipated album, Blak and Blu, is finally in stores.
“The wickedly talented Texas guitar hero mixes a dash of Jimi Hendrix, a dollop of the Black Keys and a whole heap of awesome in his commanding full-length major label debut,” raved Enertainment Weekly in its current “Must List” (print magazine only, from the October 26 issue).
And to promote the album Clark performed its opening track, “Ain’t Messin’ Around,” on Monday on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (scroll down for video).
Rolling Stone made it the big lead review in its October 25 issue, though the record received only three and a half stars out of five.
“He’s a full-fledged guitar hero of the classic school,” wrote Jon Pareles, who is also the lead music critic for the New York Times (which profiled Clark as well, on Monday). “But Clark, 28, has a different trajectory and a much larger goal: to reach his own generation, the one that grew up on hip-hop and R&B.”
Pareles goes on to say that “Clark spreads his musical bets on Blak and Blu,” with a diversity that doesn’t work for a whole record, but might for listeners who plan to “to carve their own playlists from the album’s 13 tracks.”
“Give Clark credit for striving to be something more than a blues-rock throwback and singing from a troubled heart,” Pareles concludes. “And hope that he gets through the narrow portals of pop radio. But on this album, it’s still his blues that cut deepest.”
Pareles’s take on Clark appears to be almost unanimous. Here’s what other critics have been saying about Blak and Blu so far:
Clark Jr., a 28-year-old Texan, makes his major-label debut under a mountain of hype: He’s been called everything from the “next Hendrix” to a “blues savior.” No pressure, right?
…he tries to cover all the stylistic bases on “Blak and Blu” (Warner) — and there’s the problem. His debut is less a cohesive statement than a hodge-podge of styles, jarringly sequenced….
The guitarist’s musical openness is admirable. But “Blak and Blu” sounds like he’s just trying on different styles. Maybe on the next album Clark will figure out which ones fit best.
Clark has built a considerable reputation on the strength of his bluesy fretwork, but “Blak and Blu” is no guitar showcase. Instead, Clark engages in confusing genre hopping, with most of the 13 tunes disappointingly derivative.
On the album’s first verse Clark sings, “Ain’t nobody else like me around.” Alas, he’s wrong: We’ve heard this all before.
Opening with the aptly titled “Ain’t Messin’ Around,” Clark has already showed off his Jimi Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughn chops by the time the second song, “When My Train Comes In” has arrived. From there, he demonstrates various and sundry moves, from the pop hooks of “Travis County” to the hip-hop flavored beats of “The Life” to the doo-wop woo pitching of “Please Come Home” and still more impressive contemporary soul of “Things Are Changin’.” Anybody who’s seen Clark on stage knows he’s already a devastatingly good live act. Blak & Blu makes it clear the guitar slinger can back it up in the recording studio.
Instead of an endless stream of soaring solos, he opts for a more nuanced approach, one that points to his desire to create a fully realized album rather than just a highlight reel of his fingerpicking skills. Clark’s refusal to be pigeonholed as merely a great axman results in a diverse, sometimes confounding record that exhibits a still-evolving oeuvre while still showcasing the chops that got him to this point in his career.
It’s brave that Clark seeks to work outside of the bluesman paradigm that many of his fans revere him for (And it’s definitely a conscious effort: Blak and Blu’s press release describes producer Mike Elizondo as having credits that are “fittingly eclectic”), but in these cases he stretches himself a bit too far.
While Clark comes out of a blues tradition, he’s also a twentysomething who’s taken in all of contemporary music.
I’d say Clark is still a work in progress. His voice is a bit thin for the heavy blues and rock that he likes to tackle, which is why his vocals seem more heavily produced than his guitar playing. But his eclecticism isn’t just showing off — he has a real feel for each genre he mixes and matches. Blak and Blu may be uneven, but it’s also something rare: a blues album by a young artist that’s less a sober attempt at worthiness than the raucous shout of a happy talent.
Next up for the guitarist? Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and the Roots on Thursday.