Friday, February 22, 2019

Album Review: Gary Clark, Jr. - This Land

Ever since signing to a major label, the Texan guitarist has dropped the blues guitar gunslinger outfit and taken on the mantle of a socially conscious modern soul storyteller in the vein of Fantastic Negrito.

This Land is a chronicle of a post-post-racial America as seen through the eyes of a black man from Texas and needless to say things don’t look pretty. But don’t look for force-fed political messages. Sure, there is plenty of anger in the lyrics but this isn’t a strictly political statement. It’s a slice of life. There are songs of love, lust and loss. And there are plenty of hot guitar moments, too but Gary Clark, Jr. isn’t one of those blues guitar revivalists like Joe Bonamassa. In fact the whole album is more indebted to Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield and Prince than to blues or blues-rock artists of yore. 

The album opens with the title track which is sort of an ironic update of the Woody Guthrie folk classic. The tone is dark and the mood is angry. The guitars are slow, raw and dirty and the delivery is impassioned: obviously, this man has had enough. There is a funky backbeat, an electronica undercurrent and an almost rap-like flow: this is modern blues by the way of Funkadelic, closer to Childish Gambino than to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

What About Us is a more upbeat number with a staccato main riff that sounds almost metal and the whole song is  very reminiscent of late-nineties Lenny Kravitz.

I Got My Eyes On You (Locked & Loaded) is a soul ballad that sounds like what Curtis Mayfield could be recording today. The vocals are very expressive, and the sing-along chorus is the kind of ear-worm that’ll stay with you all day. The guitar solo builds up the tension on top of that chorus until the eventual breakdown and end of the song.

I Walk Alone runs on a heavy riff on top of which Gary Clark, Jr. sings in a soulful falsetto. The best part of the song is the great echoey solo. The song ends abruptly, which is a shame: that solo could’ve gone on for another few bars.

Feelin’ Like A Million has a cool, swinging reggae beat and almost EDM percussions but sonically it fits right in with the rest of the record. There are some great guitar punctuations and I wish he’d let his instrument roar a little more on this one.

Gotta Get Into Something is the first real departure from the slow soul jam sound of the album. It has a frantic garage beat and is 3 minutes of riotous quasi-punk rock with a delightfully primitive guitar part.

Got To Get Up is a psychedelic space-funk jam with colourful horn stabs.

Feed the Babies is another Curtis Mayfield/Funkadelic-type slow funk sung in falsetto which goes crescendo, adding instruments as it unfolds and explodes when the horns arrive. The guitar  at the end makes this one of the best tracks on the album.

Pearl Cadillac is a sultry ballad where Gary Clark, Jr. again makes use of his falsetto. It’s hard to not think of Prince when listening to the songs, even the lyrics seem to be in the vein of the Purple One.

When I’m Gone is the song that sounds the most old-school. In fact its beat and vocal melodies wouldn’t be out of place in a Motown release

The Guitar Man is a pure soul track which sounds very much like a Marvin Gaye tune from the late seventies, complete with what sounds like a flute.

Low Down Rolling Stone is another dark, almost heavy song with a crushing power chord riff and ominous organ harmonies.

The Governor is an acoustic, rustic hoochie-coo which displays Gary Clark Jr.’s talents on the slide guitar, and it’s one of only two songs on the set with no trace of modernity. In fact it very well could have been released in the late fifties. A great way to change things up a bit.

Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow is yet another dark, slow soul ballad which features percussions and an intrusive sample: is it a voice? A trumpet? The track is good and it does take off during the chorus.

Dirty Dishes Blues is, as the title indicates the closest to a traditional blues number on the album. It features a great sounding guitar and awesome vocals and ends an otherwise monotone, if very good, album on a timeless note.

On Blak And Blu my favorite song was a bonus track called Soul. None of the bonus tracks here are of that caliber but Highway 71 is a very good spacey instrumental track which is more than a little reminiscent of Little Axe circa The Wolf That House Built. Gary Clark, Jr. really lets loose on this one and the guitar is absolutely killer.

The other bonus track is called Dit Dat and is another Prince-influenced track. It’s a fun, light funk romp with features a slap bass and a cool solo.

At over an hour long This Land is a little too much to digest, especially since nearly all the songs sound alike. But monotony is the price to pay for a cohesive project like this one, and it remains an excellent album which, despite its nods to Cosmic Slop-era Funkadelic, is not a nostalgic rehash of old formulas. In fact it’s very modern, with every instrument being heavily processed. Not all songs are fully-formed and if he had fine-tuned the songwriting it might have become the masterpiece it almost is.

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