I’m a hard fightin’ soldier, and I’m on the battlefield
I’ll keep bringing soul to Jesus by the service – the service. That I bring.
The service … is hard.
So sings an old Bible song; the voice of some essential elder. Enter Gary Clark, Jr. on the electric guitar, soon to be followed by a gospel choir for the opening track, “The Healing,” of Clark’s second studio release, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. This track, like most of the album, is spiritual, it’s personal and it’s powerful — it’s blues, it’s rock and, at times, it’s funk. Clark’s sound is warm and empowering, charged with a relaxing undercurrent of momentum.
The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
Gary Clark, Jr.
Warner Bros. Records
His voice evokes John Legend and his verging-on-psychedelic guitar solos evoke remembrances of Jimi Hendrix. These evocations make up the skeleton of Clark’s full-bodied musical aesthetic, nuanced and completely unique. And it’s this muscular, multifaceted sound that over the years has earned him collabs with artists like Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow.
The longest track on The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, “Down to Ride” has a promising title, but reaches only 7:52 in length, and the time that would have been occupied with an awesomely intense guitar solo instead was met with a mellow but repetitive synth beat and much less guitar; it comes off as stingy, almost lazy in comparison to Blak and Blu’s “Third Stone from the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say,” which opens with that burning solo we were aching for, followed by heavy drums fortified with integrity. What’s worse is that “Down to Ride” is the last song on Sonny Boy Slim; Clark bids his audience farewell with a circling electronic beat (really?). Clark’s first studio album, Blak and Blu, back in 2012, was much grittier than Sonny Boy Slim, with songs over nine minutes long as he seamlessly filled the timespace with those incredible Hendrixian solos.
I’m making it sound like I hate the album, but The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is strong in many ways: most notably, it has more variety than Blak and Blu. “Church” is an easy acoustic ballad that uses a harmonica and gospel-like background vocals. Songs like “Hold On” and “BYOB” use jaunty electric guitar, horns and bass in ways that give this album much more of a funk undertone than we have seen Clark use in the past; instead of focusing on long and intense guitar solos (which some fans may miss), this album covers more ground. And he manages to do this without sounding forced, which is a testament to Clark’s versatility and musical fluency. This kind of variety also gives the album potential to garner more widespread appeal than Blak and Blu, and luckily Clark has enough talent to pull off a slightly more popularized release.
Less grit may make him easier to listen to for people who found his first album a little too intense, but the Austin native is best when he’s at his most soulful, grinding on the guitar and chiming in with his honey-toned voice only every now and then. Sonny Boy Slim will make you feel cool, calm, collected and ready to take anything as it comes, because as he sings to you like velvet, “Everywhere you go, just know that you’re a star.”