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Gary Clark, Jr.: Blues Brother on a Mission to Make Blues the Hip-Hop Generation Can Appreciate

How can a serious bluesman thrive in the age of Auto-Tune? That’s the question Gary Clark Jr. grapples with on his major label debut. Since his teens, Clark has been the young titan of Texas blues, coming out of Austin in the early 2000s with a smoothly long-suffering voice and one hell of a mean guitar tone, playing solos that claw and scream their stories with ornery splendor. He’s a full-fledged guitar hero of the classic school.

And that’s all he would need to be, if he only wanted to spend his career playing for roots-music die-hards and recording for his own Hotwire Unlimited, the Austin label that released his albums from 2004 to 2010. But Clark, 28, has a different trajectory and a much larger goal: to reach his own generation, the one that grew up on hip-hop and R&B.

Clark spreads his musical bets on Blak and Blu. Instead of having one signature sound, he tries a dozen, delving into modern R&B, retro soul, psychedelia and garage rock. A handful of the album’s songs are cherry-picked from Clark’s Hotwire catalog, remade in studios that make everything sound bigger and tougher. Abetted by producers Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), Clark is clearly aware that young listeners have heard the Black Keys, Prince and the Roots. Although most songs have a live, hand-played flavor, a few of them – including the title track – tilt toward the static, looplike grooves of hip-hop.

The album’s core is still the blues. Clark dips into the historical timeline, sampling a juke joint’s worth of 20th-century styles: from the rural slide-guitar picking of “Next Door Neighbor Blues” to the desolate tidings and incendiary lead guitar of “When My Train Pulls In” to the Cream-y riffing and layering of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.” But Clark won’t be genre-bound. “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” is pushy, updated Stax-Volt soul with Clark’s fuzztone leading the charge of a horn section. “Things Are Changin'” makes another Memphis move

Read more: Jon Pareles, Rolling Stone

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