Friday, August 17, 2012

Robert Cray Band: Nothin But Love - Cray Graduates To True Greatness

I know, I know. Robert Cray - he's been great since the 70s. He's sang well, played great guitar, written some soulful rhythm & blues, and generally been a sharp dressed man, but, he never made a great album. Lots of excellent, cool records - but never great. Nothin But Love changes that - this is a great album by any measure, and Crays has graduated from blues great to great great. What I call, Ray Charles great.

Produced by the current King Midas of producers, Kevin Shirley, and assisted by his longstanding band of bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Jim Pugh, and drummer Tony Braunagel, Cray has trimmed every bit of fat, focused all of his musicality, and achieved a goal worthy of the work and endless dedication he has given to his art. Lifetime achievement? This is a great one.

Twenty seconds into (Won't Be) Coming Home and I know this is Robert Cray's finest hour. A smart drum fill announces his arrival and it's off to the races. I can hear the nickle wraps on the strings of his signature Stratocaster singing through his amp's tubes on their path to the speaker cone, and into the microphone. I can even discern the wood in the speaker cabinet. Crisp, clean, lean, and juicy - this is a textbook recording of an amazing performance. The Robert Cray band has always delivered the goods, but this truly sounds like a greatest hits album comprised of all new material - quite a thrill.

The Cray Band takes a trip to the Bermuda triangle via The Big Easy on Worry, the second track. The fat, clean, and sleek bass playing of Richard Cousins gets things moving as an insistent beat supports some fine voodoo piano comping. Cray lets the band provide the geographic compass - he does what he does so well, and it sits perfectly astride the arrangement. Cray is one of the few blues guitarists who can mine familiar territory and always make it ound fresh. He's never been in better voice, and his songwriting is at its best. He's gotten better like a fine wine.

I'll Always Remember You features a brilliant horn arrangement that posts a sophisticated set of twists and turns which lead to the singer's first verse - and whether it's the soulful lead piano, Robert's thick as molasses vocal delivery, or the horns's refusal to take a back seat, this tune is relentless and you'll be replaying it several times to catch all of the intense musicality unfold.

Side Dish is served up in the style of Cray's college frat party past (you remember Cray in Animal House, right?). Uptempo dance jams can often be cliched and utterly avoidable, but Cray and his band sound like they're hitting the beach for the first night after a couple of years at Berklee. This smokes - I'm not a big fan of the genre, but this is delightful.

Robert Cray has always been a confident performer, but Nothin But Love catapults him into 'Ray Charles-cool' territory. His long and auspicious career has finally delivered him into the realm of the ascended masters of rhythm & blues. A Memo could easily have come from the pen of Gregg Allman on one of his more inspired days. Cray owns it, but it's a great example of a man looking around to see what might work in conjunction with his own recipe.

Selling the song is the blueman's job - at the end of the day all Cray has in his tool box is his guitar, and his voice. Blues Get Off My Shoulder shows just what a tremendous salesman of the blues Robert Cray has become. This could almost be a tribute to the late, great Gary Moore, and I can pay a slow blues no greater respect.

Producer Kevin Shirley shows again the value of a helmsman who knows the art of songwriting and arranging as well as he knows his way around a mixing board. This record is sonically perfect, but more importantly, Shirley has worked closely with Cray to remove every bit of unnecessary information and to stick to the facts. The skill and precision with which the band negotiates the curves will stun you in the finest fashion. Shirley has captured it all magnificently.

Percy Sledge would have sounded right at home singing Fix This had it been written in 1969 instead of 2012, and if radio really still played the hits, this would be one. I can hear Casey Kasem waxing about it even now. Cray plays a deliciously fat and sultry solo on this tune that fits like one of his well tailored suits.

Keyboardist Jim Pugh is Nothin But Love's secret weapon - whether he is sitting behind the Hammond Organ or a Steinway Piano his playing is incredible. On every song his presence is immense, yet never obtrusive. He comps, he vamps, fills and silently solos on every tune - never stealing the show, but lighting it up wonderfully. You could strip this album to just keyboard, bass, and drums and it would still be a fine record. That's how great a band Cray as beside him.

I'm Done Cryin' is one of 'those' Cray tunes. No matter how many we've heard, we yearn for another - a heartache set to music. There's an almost Beatle-esque/pop syncopation to the tune's verses that leads into a sinfully string soaked chorus - this is what we came for. When Cray hits a note of falsetto leading into one line, I got goosebumps - no shit, I got goosebumps.

This record connects with me on many levels, but I may be most enamored with the manner in which Robert Cray has stepped up to the plate - he has always been the captain of his own ship, but this sounds like he went deeper, reached a place he's only looked up to in the past, like maybe the stakes were higher, or maybe he felt more free to leave nothing hanging, or to the imagination.

Just to check myself, I always do a reference/litmus test when I am very taken by a new record, and this album passed easily. I interspersed it with some of Cray's past, and up against albums by Sam Cooke and Eric Clapton, and it stood proudly, unwavering in its glory.

Sadder Days wraps up the album, a thoughtful meditation which elegantly winds down a beautiful retreat into rhythm & the blues. Hark, the angels sing, Long Live The King.

Out August 27th on the Provogue label in the UK, August 28th in Northern America.

Thanks to Peter Noble and Will Taylor at Noble PR, Provogue Records, and Tracey at TMA Publicity.

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