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SPIN Essentials

Gary Clark Jr., ‘Blak and Blu’

Gary Clark Jr.
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 22, 2012
Label: Warner Bros.

Make no mistake: Gary Clark Jr.’s major-label debut aims to introduce the Austin-based blues luminary to the widest possible audience. But which Gary Clark Jr. do you want to meet? The forceful stylist, sent to enrapture long-suffering blues fetishists? The cunning neo-soul charmer who’s played sidekick to Alicia Keys? How about the “New Hendrix” that rock critics spent the past year stammering over? Or perhaps the heir apparent to garage-rock breakouts like the Black Keys or White Stripes? Depending on where exactly you sink into Blak and Blu, you might encounter any or all of the above; the collection places Clark among the most promising and unpredictable artists to break out of Austin’s fertile scene in years.

But it’s naïve to think of this wildly eclectic maiden voyage for Warner Bros. as a debut in the first place. Hardly an upstart, the 28-year-old has been around the block and back, cutting a handful of records on his own Hotwire Unlimited label and vying for a self-made career akin to the deified musical icons with whom he’s so frequently compared: uncle-rock gods like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and Hendrix. In the wake of prime-time reality shows, Twitter chicanery, and Auto-Tune, Clark’s grassroots ascent smacks of the Old-Fashioned Way, largely powered by his swaggeringly confident live shows and hundreds of thousands miles on the road.

Clark’s 2012 tour de force of festival appearances created a deafening buzz; he’s jumped onstage with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Dave Matthews (the latter for an explicitly torch-passing “All Along the Watchtower” cover), and has jammed at the White House with a pick-up band that included B.B. King and Mick Jagger. The dude is no joke. When his band gets a chance to stretch out, they burn through blues-based rock with the destructive, mountain-leveling force of a comic-book super-weapon.

But what does all that make Blak and Blu? A mixed bag of eclectic overachievement, boasting a huge stylistic range that, while loaded with flashes of brilliance, might sound better parceled out in pieces than consumed as a whole. With help from producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple), Clark isn’t pandering to diehards who’ve crowned him the Savior of the Blues; there are moments, like the hard-grooving drum loops and punchy horn lines of the title track, or the cyclical urban groove of the “The Life,” where he eschews his muscular guitar heroics entirely to adopt the alluring posture of a Maxwell protégé. But elsewhere, Clark plugs directly into the manic energy of his live gigs, churning through badass, belligerent dirges like “Numb” or shuffling, up-tempo jams like “Travis County.” (Given his pedigree and genuine skill, this kind of stuff makes blues-inclined indie crossovers like the Black Keys sound like lily-livered school kids.) Add a couple of smoothly executed throwback grooves — the classy Al Green wah-wah seduction of “Things Are Changin’,” the Smoky Robinson falsetto of “Please Come Home” — and Clark’s versatility will astonish you, provided that it hasn’t completely disoriented you.

All its experience and pedigree aside, Blak and Blu still suffers from a few beginner’s blunders. The coyly repentant theme of the “The Life” is loaded with chintzy rhymes about driving drunk, hanging with “So-Cal friends,” and longing to “hit the ATM.” Then there’s the dueling calamities of turntable scratching and tabla drumming that weigh down the Hendrix/Little Johnny Taylor medley “Third Rock From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say,” which might work live, but on record, hits you with all the odd-couple subtlety of a Judgment Night B-side.

And yet, despite such growing pains, Clark’s penchant for restless, exploratory tangents ensures that Blak and Blu hits like a ton of bricks. “You Saved Me” couples metallic guitar fuzz with some Purple Rain handclaps, and despite pulling our host far outside Austin’s city limits, it still capitalizes on his vocal control, his volcanic guitar, and his lyrical earnestness. Even better is the dead-simple guitar strut of “Bright Lights,” which honors Clark’s blues-god roots but boasts a memorable enough hook to realize his crossover aspirations. Toward tune’s end, as he’s twisting though a euphoric solo and the groove rides a cresting wave of washed-out cymbals, he crows, “You gonna know my name by the end of the night.” It’s like a mantra, a threat, a promise, a guarantee.