The blues is inarguably a vital part of America’s cultural history and an essential building block for pop music — but these days, it’s not exactly known for fresh ideas. Gary Clark Jr. may be the man to change that. Here’s a twentysomething guy with equal parts skill and swagger, an Austin juke-joint hero with ample amounts of coast-to-coast cool.
On his major-label debut, Clark establishes himself as both a torch carrier and a fire starter, stripping the blues down to its core and rebuilding those elements into one of the most bracing rock records of the year. While Blak and Blu is primarily a showcase for Clark’s soulful swing of a voice and his volcanic guitar solos, he uses his deep-seated chops as a license to genre-skip: Album opener ”Ain’t Messin ‘Round” is a horn-spiked neutron bomb, the title track plays with moody trip-hop loops, and the breezily rap-crooned ”The Life” is a drive-to-the-beach hit waiting to happen. Every time Clark drops in a disparate element — a scratch-tastic turntable breakdown here, some breezy R&B falsetto there — he comes across not as a bandwagoneer but as an open-minded prodigy whose wide-ranging talents just naturally spill over.
Though Clark can occasionally get self-indulgent (some of the jammier songs here drift past the six-minute mark), his casual charisma is powerful enough to consistently hold together Blak and Blu’s eclecticism. Like original 12-bar virtuoso Robert Johnson, Clark follows his six-string muse to the crossroads, and then keeps pressing forward. A-