“To sum up Gary Clark Jr.is more challenging every day. He’s a musical universe unto himself, expanding at a nearly immeasurable rate, ever more hard to define — as a mind-blowing guitarist, a dazzling songwriter and engagingly soulful singer.” And that statement comes from the good people at garyclarkjr.com, so you know it’s spot on. Which is to say, I have no idea who Gary Clark Jr is, but I must have heard of him recently, because I added his name to a list of music to listen to. Which I did, with The Story of Sunny Boy Slim.
Starting with what sounds like an old spiritual, recorded on the fly with whatever lo-fi device was available at the time, The Healing quickly morphs into a slick studio sound with hints of hip hop beats, blues guitar and Clark’s soulful voice. Declaring, “this music is my healing”, the combination of roots sincerity and modern aesthetics is an amazing start to get me excited about an album and an artist I knew nothing about going in.
Industrial meets funk, meets hip hop, meets wailing guitars on Grinder for a fusion that just oozes cool. The funk is turned up even more on Star with a bass line any hip hop song from the last 20 years wished it had been able to sample. Then Clark’s falsetto vocals kick in, turning it into a sexed up slow jam, letting as all know that no matter where we are, we are all stars. Those same general ingredients are then toned down just enough to make an amazingly 60s era RnB tune with Our Love.
After everything I’d heard on The Story of Sunny Boy Slim so far, I really wasn’t ready for the acoustic guitar, tambourine and harmonica of Church. It’s a sharp left turn in tone, but Clark’s soulful voice still connects it to the more modern, polished sounds of the previous songs. Then, when the soulful piano intro of Hold On turns into big horns and wailing guitar solos, I realise that pretty much everything on this album is Gary Clark Jr. pulling himself in all sorts of directions. Yet never being torn apart in the process. How can something be so loose, and so tight at the same time?
From the flat out rock of Stay, to the amped up delta blues of Shake, to the synth balladry of Down to Ride, to countless examples of genre hopping in between, Gary Clark Jr and The Story of Sunny Boy Slim never stay still for too long. But a laser focus is still evident in the unflinching quality from top to bottom.