Music Reviews

Robert Cray

Time Will Tell


How many brilliant records does Robert Cray have to make to get his due? He’s huge with the blues crowd, because that’s his base; he’s huge with the Adult Alternative Album crowd, because they don’t mind hearing some stuff with blues roots and soul roots; but that’s about it. Oh, and Robert Christgau, who once gave his Strong Persuader album the coveted A+ grade. That was pretty cool, because it’s so hard to escape the blues ghetto.

But here Cray does it again, and maybe even better, with ten songs that take blues and soul and reggae and rock and country and funk and deploy them in different combinations to form some truly wonderful music. “Your Pal” is the Stax song that got away, except with Sly Stone’s horn section; “Distant Shore” does some great bizarre new-wave synth stuff, very reminiscent of Robert Palmer’s work from the late 1970s, with rockabilly guitar and a yearning anti-war vocal from Cray; and “Up in the Sky” has a ton of bluesy sitar work all over it, the better to punctuate a track which appears to be about two elderly people who sneak out of a nursing facility so they can die together outside on their own, and be reunited in the afterlife.

As you can tell, Cray is on a whole different level to everyone else for a lot of this record. Political discourse seems to have passed from the blues these days (don’t wanna offend any of our big fat white guy audience who might be Republicans or Democrats or Greens or Pinks or Chartreuses or whatever) – which is why it’s shocking when “Survivor” turns from a reggaefied song that could be about surviving anything into one that explicitly denounces those who “take a little schoolboy, teach him who to hate / Then you send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait / You’re trying to change a world that you don’t understand.” When the marching boots take over the song at the end, it’s shocking – which is exactly what Cray wants it to be.

But the finest song on the album is one of the more straight-up blues numbers. “Back Door Slam” starts out like a Bo Diddley bad-bad-man tune, echoey guitar and lyrics like, “I was born in the back seat of a traveling hurricane / I came up in the backstreets of a city with no name.” But the damned thing keeps getting more and more mystical, until it’s clear that our narrator is not just a bad bad man, but Evil Itself: “I’m the dust in your broom / 100-proof Everclear / I’m the crack in your ceiling / The thump you think you hear.” Spooky enough – and then the double-decker solo comes in, the notes so fractured by echo that they almost don’t exist…but they do… but they don’t…

Oh, and if you want to get lucky, there’s some smooth soul songs here that’ll do the trick, too. So you KNOW that this is one of my favorite records of 2003 now, right?

Sanctuary Records:

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