Gary 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’s not about virtuosity as a guitar slinger so much as intensity, with a heavy attack that weds blues chords to metal distortion. As a vocalist, he’s less a traditional blues shouter than a more delicately textured R&B singer. Clark the songwriter wants it all. With production from Mike Elizondo (whose credits include Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), 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.
Clark’s at his best when he digs into blues, saturating his solos with psychedelic textures and toxic levels of feedback, as on the doom-ridden “When My Train Pulls In” and the slow-burn “Bright Lights.” Even a back-porch solo piece on slide guitar, “Next Door Neighbor,” packs menace, thanks to the foot-stomping rhythms and the singer’s dire pronouncement: “Came home last night with a pistol pointed at my head.”
Clark also dabbles in horn-driven Stax-style soul (“Ain’t Messin’ Around”) and early rock ‘n’ roll (“Travis County”). But he loses focus when he aims for smoothed out R&B in the title track, “The Life” and “Things are Changin’,” swapping his guitar for bland Maxwell mimicry. The doo-wop vocals and strings of “Please Come Home” feel out of place, especially coming immediately after the bruising extremes of “Numb.”
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.