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Music Review: Robert Cray – This Time

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With a relatively fixed form like the blues, individuality is essential. Robert Cray has been around long enough to have established an instantly identifiable sound, though he’s obviously far more concerned about blue feeling than twelve-bar convention.

Once considered something of a shining hope for another blues resurrection – he’s a fine guitar slinger capable of absolutely sizzling fretwork – Cray has instead forged a career based more on smooth and supple soul than gritty blues. It’s become somewhat formulaic over the course of his last few outings, but it’s a fine recipe indeed, and at least the formula is all his. Here he mines much the same territory, though he’s chosen to forgo the topical subject matter that’s sprinkled his recent work in favor of smoldering grooves that explore relationships from various perspectives.

The opening track, indeed, is about as close to straight-ahead blues as Cray gets these days, though the perspective is skewed to modern sensibilities – It’s Cray who refuses to cook any more “Chicken In The Kitchen” while his woman is out running around. Cray’s still a smoothie, but he cuts loose with some exemplary and assertive guitar work, full of stinging surprises. From there the disc slips into the shimmering soul that he does so well, with “I Can’t Fail” hopeful and “Love 2009” a very personal plea for love’s salvation. Neither offer Cray much chance to strut his stuff – arrangements are impeccably tight, built upon the solid foundation provided by long-time cohort Jim Pugh’s Hammond organ – but he’s all over both with exquisite rhythm work, quietly contributing to the ensemble sound rather than showboating with blazing solos.

“That’s What Keeps Me Rocking” is a bright, bluesy romp that overcomes rather cringe-worthy lyrics with an irresistibly bouncy beat and incendiary guitar work. Elsewhere things alternate between moody, ruminative tunes full of aching regret (the title track and the soulful “Forever Goodbye”), breezy, catchy ditties like “To Be True”, and the barely suppressed menace of “Trouble And Pain.” Cray ends with “Truce,” a thoughtful and thoroughly adult examination of the ways we hurt those we love, complimented once again by Jim Pugh’s stellar work on both organ and piano.

Returning to the fold this time out is bassist Richard Cousins, with new drummer Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band) keeping time. Cray’s voice remains a marvel – here again, the only fitting adjective is smooth, with a few extra ‘o’s thrown in for good measure. He never, ever seems to break a sweat, yet he’s an exceptionally expressive singer – more crooner than shouter, he relies on subtlety and nuance rather than power, but gets the message across every time.

Solidly crafted and impeccably produced, This Time doesn’t break any new ground for Cray. As a continuation of his signature soulful sound, though, it’s a fine listen, easily among his best work. Recommended!

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