Gary Clark Jr.
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Singer/guitarist Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land reimagines what contemporary blues might sound like without the profound influence of the 1960s British Invasion to alter its trajectory in the United States. Clark's fantastic fifth studio album represents a peek into a universe where young Englishmen didn't get the chance to change the course of American music.
The history of blues rock takes place over the Atlantic Ocean. Blues records from the American south found their way across the Atlantic to England, where bands like Cream, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin reinterpreted it through the lens of rock. That music found its way back over the Atlantic, where American artists integrated that British blues rock sound into mainstream rock, with too few bothering to revisit the original source material.
There are two compelling examples of this migration. One is Fleetwood Mac, who were a blues band in England, but became a pop band in the United States, due in no small part adding Americans Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to the lineup. The other case study is Jimi Hendrix, an American who had to move to England for his big break, even taking on a British rhythm section, before crossing the Atlantic again, and finally finding success in his native land.
Amazing music came out of the British Invasion, but in terms of blues rock, it kept things fairly parochial, limiting influences to blues and rock, but no other music forms. That meant other genres—especially African-American ones—like soul, funk, and rhythm-and-blues, were, for the most part, kept out of the pop mainstream. Bands and artists like Curtis Mayfield and Parliament-Funkadelic drew from the Invasion sound, but they were never able to push their own sounds into the standard rock vocabulary.
Gary Clark Jr., however, absorbed all of these American influences, and integrates them perfectly into his own blues rock sound. The result is an incredibly contemporary-sounding album that also folds in American music of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s. The modern sound is aided by the immediacy of his lyrics, which unabashedly take on present-day issues like race.
"This Land," the title track, is also one of the album's strongest. Featuring a hip-hop beat and phrasing that feels almost like reggae, Clark explores how he's perceived in white communities, "I know you think I'm up to something / I'm just eating because I'm still hungry," before bringing the song around to his own feelings, via a chant "This land is mine." Clark's guitar pops in and out of the song, a perfectly warm, distorted tone and Albert King-style string bends adding to the drama of the track.
Clark explores funk in a few places, bringing in the sound of Parliament-Funkadelic. Funk is a standard blues rock ingredient, but it's usually reduced to scratchy, porno-style guitar. Clark has a much more expansive view of funk, though, and on tracks like "Got to Get Up," he brings in elements like a chanting chorus, a positively danceable drum beat, and guitar sounds and riffs that sound like they come from outer space. And of course, the horns that provide the rhythm of the track.
Clark hits more standard blues notes, too. The album concludes with "Dirty Dishes Blues," a simple blues featuring Clark's voice and guitar, along with the aura of a drum beat. It's a cool way to end the album, bringing everything around to the blues at its simplest and least adorned.
This Land has plenty of the blues rock guitar for which Clark is famous. What's special about the album is how he seamlessly folds in different musical influences, managing to keep his guitar up front in the songs, while not overshadowing the music, and without compromising his recognizable sound. Clark accomplishes a lot with This Land just by leaning on influences from the American side of the Atlantic.
Notable Tracks: "Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow" | “Got to Get Up” | "This Land"