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Gary Clark Jr.’s “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” a grab bag of styles

The Austin blues rocker pulls sounds from all over the board in this personal, emotive sophomore LP.

By Connor Lagore | Sept. 23, 2015

Tags: Music Reviews

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Austin, Texas, native Gary Clark Jr. has been compared to some of the greats, from Hendrix to Vaughn to Guy to Prince. These four guitarists all have unique and recognizable sounds, which makes the comparisons a testament to Clark’s range as an artist.

His sophomore album, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” takes elements from the four guitarists and more, and strategically mixes them into a record composed of a unique collection of tracks, showing off both his vocal and instrumental abilities.

“Blak and Blu,” Clark’s first album that garnered his first two Grammy nominations, had a simple concept: showcase Clark’s raw talent and rough sound with extensive, dynamic solos. “Sonny Boy Slim” finds Clark holding back, taming his sound in order to experiment with different samplings of genres and styles.

The album opens with “The Healing,” a soulful blues rock melody with gospel undertones. Immediately, listeners hear the variety Clark can play with that wasn't seen on “Blak and Blu.” The repeated chorus line, “This music is my healing,” reveals that the album is more of a personal statement for Clark, citing the importance of music and its many influences on him growing up.

The track “Star” conjures up feelings of a Prince-like slow jam, while “Shake” is a jaunty, hard folk rock tune. While the difference in styles from song to song is impressive, the variety in sound makes it hard to nail down where Clark’s true talent belongs. “Wings,” for example, barely showcases his ability to rip off his electrifying solos and instead relies heavily on a drumbeat throughout the song. He interjects with sudden outbursts of guitar every so often, but his voice over predominantly a backtrack shows off his hip hop influences.

The record, cut in his hometown of Austin, is really only a testament to the music he grew up on and how it’s affected him. The one acoustic track, “Church,” which tells a story of becoming a man, is a spiritual venture and uses his sisters on backing vocals (one of a few songs on the album they’re featured on).

While more of a personal album, Clark doesn’t stray away from commenting on his surroundings. On “Hold On,” he rolls out an emotive piece expressing fatigue over race tensions. He sings, “Another mother crying on TV because her boy didn’t make it,” asking his listeners to hold on, a message similar to many other songs by black artists in this age (think “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “One Man Can Change the World” by Big Sean).

The closing track, “Down To Ride,” heavy on synths and sharp riffs, creates a satisfying image of Clark cruising down the highway, safely cut off from the struggles of the world around him, tying the personal narrative of an album together.

Clark impresses with his wide range of musical influences and his ability to master them all, but he unfortunately strays away from the sounds that helped him break out internationally and garner him award nominations in the process. No matter the genre however, his technique and style never fail to vault him into the conversation of artists on the rise.

MOVE gives “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” three out of five stars.

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