About a year ago I threw out a solicitation for blues recs on facebook and received a tremendous response. Blues has always been a genre I've never really known too well. BB King's death in 2015 led me to Live at the Regal and for the first time in my life, I thought, "Okay, maybe now's the time." Up to that point, I've got to be honest: blues always bored me. I can admit that to you now because I'm older and wiser.
As a child of the late 70s and 80s, I associated blues mainly with any of the following:
- Blues Brothers / Roomful of Blues type songs, which all the sound the same to me.
- Stevie Ray Vaughn songs, which all sound the same the me - except "Little Wing" of course.
- Gary Moore's Still Got the Blues (awesome but for years the only blues album I ever had, not counting Led Zeppelin or other blues-derived classic rock.)
- "Back to our roots" albums by hair metal bands.
- Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai.
- Old scratchy recordings from another world.
- Car chases or other montages in 80s media.
All of the above could certainly be classified as "Blues as trickled down in 80s media to a small 98% Caucasian New England town." i.e. Maybe-not-so-representative-of-the-blues. Later, from reading interviews with my favorite guitarists or as part of a general soaking up of 20th century American history, I learned more and grew to respect and understand its place in the grand scheme of things, but still I was never really enticed to leave the other various genres and bands I was already way too preoccupied with.
Like I say, though, that Live at the Regal album opened up something to me and armed with dozens of recs from friends and friends-of-friends, I set out to explore the full panorama of the blues. I then proceeded to listen to the Robert Cray Band's discography about 15 times in a row.
Everytime I got to the end of In My Soul - which was the last chronological album when I started this project but has since been supplanted by Robert Cray With Hi Rhythm - I'd line someone else up, try it for a few days, then find myself thinking "Maybe that one Robert Cray again." Not out of boredom with whatever new music I was trying out, just because the RCB vibe is pretty damn agreeable. Eventually I began to associate it all with the beginning of my workdays, and from this the ongoing Start the Day with Cray tradition was born.
|Because if there's one thing we love round here, it's rhyming blog projects! And spreadsheets.|
|Maintained with love and meticulous care over many moons.|
In addition to Cray's fantastic guitar chops and smooth vocal phrasings, there's an awful lot of keen insight into relationships, daily life, the human condition, politics, and love in the lyrics, and an admirable variety of interesting arrangements in the songwriting. I'd say just about every form blues can take is represented in their catalog, so the ear never gets much of a chance to get sick of any one approach. Long story short: within the range of traditional blues-making, the Robert Cray boys consistently find compelling subject matter and inventive ways of getting it across.
I'll trust interested parties to find biographical info / production anecdotes on their own. This is just a quick rundown of my 10 faves. And two Honorable Mentions:
|Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1988) and Sweet Potato Pie (1997.)|
As per usual I ranked every song from 1 to 5 - the lowest was 2.5 and there were only a couple of them - then took averages of each album. These two honorable mentions came only a few hundredths away from cracking the top ten, pretty much neck and neck with #10, below. I probably should've just done a Top 12 but hey. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has one of my top 10 RCB tunes ("Don't You Even Care") as well as two still-pretty-great ones: "Laugh Out Loud," a 80s-cinemax-montage sort of number, and "Night Patrol," kind of a unique track in their catalog.
Sweet Potato Pie is a pretty solid affair straight through, but three deserve special mention: "Back Home", "The One in the Middle," and my favorite "Simple Things." Three from the slow side of the band that also showcase the nice horn arrangements found throughout their discography.
I'll try not to link to every song I mention or things would get unwieldy pretty fast, but before we get to my 10 favorites, here are some tunes worth checking out from some of the albums not covered:
- "Does It Really Matter" from 2005's Twenty. Like "Don't You Even Care" it's probably in my top 10 RCB tunes. A song about being so cool even not paying your bills is sexy. "Cause when the lights go out / it only gets better. When you hold me tight, tell me it's all right / then the rest doesn't really matter." (Definitely a line a guy wrote.)
- "There's Nothing Wrong" and "What About Me" from 1999's Take Your Shoes Off. Great album all around. It ends on an odd note with "Tollin' Bells," which features a sharp chop across the guitar bridge, perfectly timed with a shrill chord on piano, to simulate the tolling of bells. I admire the effect/ commitment, but the cumulative effect is somewhat punishing. No wonder Quasimodo snapped.
As of this writing, the RCB have released over 20 studio albums and a handful of live ones. Here are my ten faves:
This one opens with "Chicken in the Kitchen" which you might think is an old standard made popular by Bessie Smith or someone, re-interpreted from a male POV. But it's an original composition by Cray. A man who does all the cooking for his lady vows to stop cooking for her on account of her faithless ways. "I ain't lyin'! / I ain't fryin'!"
Some other great tunes here ("I Can't Fail," "Forever Goodbye," "I Love 2009") but my other favorite besides "Chicken" is its vibe opposite "To Be True," the tale of a man trying to atone for his relationship wrongs. Like a lot of the best tunes, blues or otherwise, it sketches out a situation anyone can relate to (the thin ice of a second chance) against a riff, arrangement, or melody you swear you've heard before. I forget who said it - it might have been Chuck Klosterman - but anyone can write a song that expresses his or her unique feelings; it takes a maestro to write the ones that express everyone's.
Great album. If it alone had to represent All Blues Everywhere to future civilizations, it'd do a righteous job. That goes for everything to come as well.
I didn't like this album so much the first few times I heard it, but it steadily gained ground from the third spin on. "Phone Booth" is pretty prototypical RCB - I wish I was aware of it when I too was new to Chicago and had no one to call as it'd have had nice resonance. Perhaps that would have jumpstarted the whole Start Your Day with Cray thing 13 years earlier. I'm sure the Bryan from that level of the Tower is a senator now.
My favorite is probably "I Got Loaded," but the funk-blues of "So Many Women, So Little Time" earns the hyperlink. I really want to know what Prince thought of this track. Along those lines, it's amusing to consider this came out alongside "Rock of Ages" and all the other classics of 1983.
|In My Soul|
"Memphis soul" is the term I kept running across in reviews of this album. Whatever you call it, it's a mood record with lots of mournful, swaying horns ("Deep In My Soul", made for a certain bar scene in a movie; however you interpret that, it fits, I bet) side by side with mellow production masterpieces like "Pillow," probably my favorite track here. Love the riff during the chorus.
There's also "Hip Tight Onions," a tribute to Booker T's similarly-named classic, recently featured to memorable effect in the Twin Peaks revival. Fun track: short and sweet.
"Porch Light" opens this album - nice moody track that puts a "Tell-Tale Heart" spin on that timeless blues theme of being some married lady's sugar on the side. Unlike something like "Back Door Man", though, the POV here is one of feeling out of control and conscience-struck over the sordid affair.
"Change of Heart, Change of Mind (S.O.F.T.)" - not sure what the acronym is? It's probably a pretty minor song in the RCB catalog, but it gets stuck in my head all the time. The chorus at least. Definitely that little vocal slide he does during "change of mi-i-ind," at least.
Favorite track: "I've Slipped Her Mind." Pretty traditional, pretty classy, pretty sad.
|Too Many Cooks aka Who's Been Talkin'?|
Here's the one that started it all, 34 years before and not to be confused with the Adult Swim masterpiece. I watched it with the original sound muted and the RCB title track playing to see if any Dark Side/ Wizard of Oz magic happened, but none that I could find. Timeless quality vs. other 1980s.
Great debut and it speaks to the timeliness of the RCB's approach to blues: line it up against anything else from 1980 and it transitions well to either 2017 or backwards to 1960 or whatever.
Two very good ones here ("When the Welfare Turns It Back on You" and "I'd Rather Be a Wino") and two great ones ("I'm Gonna Forget About You" - that'd have been right at home at my old coffe-and-sandwiches shop Oregon Emporium in Dayton OH in the late 90s: exactly the playlist vibe they were going for) - and "Nice As a Fool Can Be.") Each follows a rather "blues standard" progression but with a certain irony and detachment in the lyrics
|Shame + a Sin|
"1040 Blues" opens the RCB's 8th record - 9th if you count Cray's one-off with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. You can always tell when an artist is doing okay for his or her self, because sooner or later some bitching about taxes starts to appear. (I call this the "Who Made Who" phenomenon, re: "The databank knows my number / says I got to pay cuz I made the grade last year.")
This album has no one tune I absolutely love, just 11 songs I like very much. It's like one of those baseball teams that never sets records nor wins by outstanding margins, but they never stop scoring/ getting the other team out. (The kind of roster old Dads like.) As I wrote in my notes for "Some Pain, Some Shame," if an album only had this and "1040 Blues," it'd be perfectly acceptable; that every song more or less clears this bar, though, makes it something remarkable. (For overall album mood, I wrote: "Michelob neon sign reflected in puddles.")
Favorites are "Stay Go" - that's a hard one to dislodge from your head, so be careful - and "Don't Break This Ring," another Sunday Afternoon NPR-sounding affair. Nice vocals.
If you were a MTV viewer in 1986 and 1987, you probably remember "Smoking Gun" being played an awful lot. I sure do. Even back then - when my metal blinders were at their blindiest - I didn't mind this one. It might be the band's best-known track or perhaps it only feels that way because I remember MTV and Casey Kasem talking so much to me about it. Back then everything I learned about anything seemed unprecedented without always proving to be so. It is, regardless, one of my favorites.
The album still enjoys a strong reputation nowadays if a quick google is any indication. Most every song got over 4 stars in my own personal reckoning, with special kudos for "I Guess I Showed Her," "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" - one of those songs that references the name of the album in the bridge rather than the chorus or as a title of its own - "Nothin' But a Woman," (fun riff) "More Than I Can Stand," and "I Wonder."
|Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm |
It's funny how things synch up. Concurrent to exploring the blues (but prior to the project turning into Start the Day with Cray) I did a few other discography listen-throughs, some of which I'll be exploring more in these pages, but among them was the incomparable Bill Withers. Then smack dab in the middle of my Cray listening comes this new album and the first song is a fantastic version of Bill's "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh."
(While we're here, my Windows Media Player settings restart the album once it runs through all the songs and without fail - as recently as right now - when "The Same Love" starts again, I mistake it for "Shakedown Street" by the Grateful Dead. They really don't sound alike at all, but the beginning evokes it enough to trigger this for me each time.)
This album has no business being as good as it is. I'm always amazed when an artist this deep into his catalog can put out one of his all-time greats. (Mellencamp's latest is great, too - good for you, 80s old-timers.) Two slightly-meh tracks ("Honey bad" and "The Way We Are") and the rest are outstanding:
- a cover of O.V. Wright's "You Must Believe in Yourself:" reminds me of "Roll with it" or "Midnight Hour."
- a cover of Mac Rice's "I Don't Care" (great.)
- a cover of Tony Joe White's "Aspen Colorado" (Also features Mr. White himself - some really pretty guitars here.)
- "Just How Low" (the obligatory 2017 I Hate the President track - great groove, though.) - "You Had My Heart" ("Planet Caravan" or "For What It's Worth"-esque.)
- And my two faves: "I'm With You" (also has a reprise) and "Don't Steal My Love."
Does this collaboration with Hi Rhythm mean the end of the RCB? Time will tell. How about that? That brings us to:
|Time Will Tell |
Only one track here ("Your Pal") failed to crack "4" on my best-of-5 points scale, and even that one got a 3.8 Great album. Some really experimental (for Cray) tracks: "Survivor" (which ends with the sound of jackboots - didn't see that one coming;) "Up in the Sky" (featuring some sitars;) and "Distant Shore" (an anti-war song written by the keyboardist, taking a long-timeline view of the subject.)
Some of the more traditionally-sounding RCB tracks are also own personal favorites: "I Didn't Know," "Back Door Slam" - catchy, cool riffs, love that middle bridge - "What You Need (Good Man)" - which gets tuck in my head a lot and my wife has more than once asked why I keep singing this around the house - and "Spare Some Love?" - love love love that kissin'/huggin' ending.
And everything ends with "Time Makes Two," one of the better album-closers of the whole discography. Whatever you call this sort of looking-into-the-ice-cubes-of-your-whiskey funereal blues, this is a great example of it. Beautiful song.
|Nothin' But Love |
Before I fully realized how comprehensively I was interacting with Cray's catalog, I didn't know the names of the songs that got stuck in mind nor what album they came from. When I began getting that info straight, I had to laugh when I realized almost all of the RCB tunes I was always singing were from this album. And it's the 16th studio album from these guys! Who puts out their best record after 15 mostly-outstanding ones? Very impressive. And it's mostly originals to boot.
"Won't be Coming Home" is a great opener - as always, my appreciation for album-track order will always harken back to the days where choosing side closers and openers was extremely important. That's a record's punctuation. A badly punctuated album track order has the same effect on me as a sentence with sloppy commas and/or "its/ it's" errors. "Worry" is a catchy one. "Side Dish" - fun times, the light-hearted side of the guys. "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" - perfect. "Fix This" - love this one. "I'm Done Cryin'" ditto.
My two favorites, though, are "Great Big Old House" - kind of a perfect blues topic/ mood to this one - and "Sadder Days" - ditto, though I heard it as "Saturdays" before looking at the title and kept thinking it was an abstract-meaning-for-Saturday tune, i.e. "I don't have lazy weekend days anymore." I can hear a younger me very clearly singling these two tracks out as uninspired and boring. What can you do? It's not worth arguing about; he'll get here eventually.
~Final Verdict: A damn impressive body of work. America's greatest living blues guitarist? The case can be made. He shrugs off such speculation in interviews I've read. What's less arguable to me is his status as Americans greatest living blues songwriter. Granted I'm barely literate in the topic, but the breadth and variety of the RCB catalog and the vitality still on display in his most recent work with Hi Rhythm is enough to show even me where the line begins.