The inconsistency of Gary Clark, Jr.

Blues-rocker’s latest album is a mixed bag with some outstanding tracks


Blues-rock guitar virtuoso Gary Clark, Jr. burst onto the music scene in 2011 after being named Rolling Stone magazine’s “Best Young Gun.” Propelled by his dynamic live performances and the strength of his brief “Bright Lights” EP, Clark’s 2012 major label debut LP “Blak and Blu” gained considerable attention — not all of which was positive. The album’s ground-shaking high points were offset by confusing stylistic inconsistency, which came off as catering to too many different potential audiences.

“The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” Clark’s follow-up effort, is certainly a step forward. Opener “The Healing” is massive, bristling with warm guitar fuzz and packing a gospel-backed chorus. The song is highly reminiscent of Clark’s first hit, “Bright Lights,” with reverb-drenched production and red-hot guitar licks throughout.

Several other tracks succeed for similar reasons: “Grinder,” “Can’t Sleep,” “Stay” and “Shake” all follow this heavy blues model. They’re invigorating powerhouses of songs that are showcases for Clark’s ultra-smooth voice, his wild skills and his ability craft incredibly solid rock songs thoroughly steeped in the blues idiom.

Other times, though, Clark uses a traditional blues style to far less enthralling effect. On more laidback songs like “Star” and “Our Love,” Clark’s impeccable vocals fail to make up for plodding compositions and cliche lyrics. Take the “Our Love” chorus: “You are my lady / I am your man / Some call it crazy / They don’t understand.” It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed countless times in far more profound ways, and on “Sonny Boy Slim” it feels tired.

“Cold Blooded,” similarly, lacks a particularly dynamic arrangement and falls into lyrical cliches, essentially telling the story of “Hey Joe” from the man’s perspective. “Cold Blooded” answers the question of “Did the world need another song about murdering your lover?” with a resounding “No.”

“Wings” is another relatively lackluster arrangement, but its lyrical meditations on the pressures of sudden fame and fortune are framed in a profound manner. “Hold On” just barely manages to stand out because of its semi-political message, something like a watered-down version of Kendrick Lamar’s assertion that “We gonna be alright.”

The album’s standout track by far is also its most unique one. “Church” is a hard-strumming, floor-stomping acoustic number somewhere between a spiritual and work song. It has a classic melody and depicts various vignettes of toil and exhaustion before expressing a need for respite. Lines like “I worked long hours / now I’m drunk and I’m stoned” contrast nicely with the song’s old-school spiritual feel, and high choral backing vocals and emphatic harmonica energize the entire number. Clark ought to set down the electric guitar more often on his records.

Overall, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” is a mixed bag. Fun, rollicking blues numbers abound but tend to run together, and there are a few too many quieter soul songs that Clark doesn’t quite pull off. Nevertheless, the album is a significant step forward from “Blak and Blu” in terms of cohesion, and a song like “Church” is hopefully an indication of a side Clark will continue to show off on future records. There is no doubt that Clark is an immensely talented guitarist and a compelling performer. In terms of fully showcasing these things on a record, however, he still may have some work to do.

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