Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (ALBUM REVIEW)


garyclarksonnyAlthough The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is Gary Clark Jr.’s second full-length album for Warner Bros., he’s made over a half-dozen EP’s and LP’s prior to its release, so it’s fair to say he’s a seasoned recording artist at this point in his career. Which is a roundabout way of saying he’s enacted his fair share of experiments and committed his fair share of mistakes. Thankfully, he’s made the wise decision to distill this new music to the essence of his most fundamental influences, blues, R&B, rock and soul, with the help of his band plus a multiplicity of other musicians and singers.

“The Healing” is thus an ideal opening track as its refrain and coda echo some gospel roots at the core of lyrics elemental in their intent and execution. Tellingly, the screaming yet restrained guitar. simply follows through on the message in the words. Oblique nods to social issues re-enforce the emotional content there and on “Grinder,” conveying how Clark is very much of the world even as he’s confident of his own identity and comfortable in his own skin.

“Star” may be the most successful pop track Gary Clark Jr.’s done since he began recording for this major label. The silky sound of 70’s Philadelphia is as tangible in the tighten-up guitars as the man’s sweet falsetto vocal. The latter is one of this artist’s greatest virtues and it comes to the fore again, effectively highlighted by horns and background singers, on “Our Love:” when his unadorned electric guitar cuts in, he effectively ties together all the stylistic components with the track.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim thrives on its diversity in fact. The acoustic guitar and harmonica render “Church” a personal expression of Clark’s impossible to miss, especially as its forthright delivery echoes through the tracks that surround it: it’s no coincidence it’s placed nearly dead center of the eleven cuts comprising this album. Or that acoustic piano serves as the foundation of the very next cut, “Hold On,” adorned again with horns and soulful harmony singing over a slightly syncopated rhythm .

All that said, the record might benefit from more straight-ahead, stripped down rock and roll blues. Fans and dilettantes alike will most likely be hungry for a down and dirty track just to remind of Gary Clark Jr’s forte that is, re-configuring the concept of guitar hero for this still-new millennium. To his credit, cuts like “BYOB” are concise and economical exercises in style, but exercises in style nonetheless, so it’s fortunate indeed that, as this record heads to its close, Clark’s guitar rises to the fore, near the very end of “Can’t Sleep” and full-bore into and through “Stay,” the combination of which leaves as distinct and multi-colored impression of Gary Clark Jr. as the album cover reflects the music within.

The vintage rock and blues progression of “Shake,” however, offers more than just a semblance of an encore to the exploration of roots that precede it. With the self-produced sound of this record simultaneously hi and lo-fi, by the start of  heavily-produced but nevertheless deeply felt and  infectious conclusion, the temptation to progressively hike the volume is as irresistible as that to learn the words and sing along  with “Down to Ride.”

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