Album Review: Gary Clark Jr.’s Subtraction by Addition

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Imagine Jimi Hendrix in the studio, trying to cut a new album. Now imagine John Legend in the exact same studio, trying to make the exact same album at the exact same time. The two are constantly elbowing each other out of the way at the mixing desk, battling for precious track space on the disc. Lenny Kravitz occasionally shows up, trying to mediate and find common ground, but he always gets run out of the studio before he can establish order.

Welcome to Blak and Blu, the long-awaited new release by rising blues-rock icon Gary Clark Jr. Despite several inspired moments, it’s a frustrating and maddening listen that can never seem to decide what it wants to be.

For the uninitiated, the 28-year-old Clark had been plying his trade in Austin for a decade when he played a legendary set at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in 2010. After attracting some major-label attention from Warner Bros., Clark released his Bright Lights EP last year and played just about every festival there is to play while he hammered out Blak and Blu in the studio.

From the opening horn lines of “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” you know you’re going to be in for a different ride than Bright Lights–a fuzzy guitar line gives way to a falsetto chorus and a few feel-good lyrics that could be pulled right out of one of the Black Keys’ soul-inflected rave-ups. The title track, a plaintive piece of modern R&B, is where Clark does his best John Legend impression. Ditto on his reworking of the former acoustic blues “Things Are Changin’.” In “The Life,” he dabbles in the kind of repetitive, lowest-common-denominator hip-hop that winds up in Coke commercials. By the time the derivative “Please Come Home” rolls around (think Smokey Robinson), the pattern is impossible to ignore. And no, the string section doesn’t redeem it, although Clark’s reverb-y solo, perhaps his best on the album, nearly does.

It’s all a bit jarring in its incoherence. Which is too bad, because when Clark sticks to the blues, he really does bring something new to the old formula. “When My Train Pulls In,” an acoustic blues that sounded like it should be performed in a boxcar on the EP, is now more like the live version–plugged in, raw and inflected with goosebump-inducing emotion. “Travis County” is a capable foray into jump blues and rockabilly territory. And when you hit the eighth track, “Numb,” well, that’s what the people came for. “Well, I’m numb/Woman I can’t feel a thing,” wails Clark, over a distorted riff that threatens to pull the paint off the walls. “Glitter Ain’t Gold” is another satisfying new song, relying on a fuzzy, Kravitz-ian riff and hook in the chorus.

And by the time you get to the closer, “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” it’s like a cool drink of underproduced water–nothing but acoustic slide guitar, Clark’s stomping foot and a vocal that sounds like it’s shouted from across the room. Bluesy bliss.

If only there were more of it.

Clark is unquestionably a scintillating live act. But disappointingly, it seems that whatever he had to add to the blues-rock canon at this point had already been added on last year’s four-song teaser, The Bright Lights EP.

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