“The Story of Sonny Boy Slim”
Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. makes a promise on his second studio album, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim.” “Hold on, we’re gonna make it,” Clark sings like a Southern-soul crier on a tune called “Hold On.”
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The lyrics unspool in a rhythmic patter, referring to bitter losses, “the whole world gone crazy.” But the track ignites only during his guitar solo, which starts in the background and soon fills the frame. If this calls to mind the biblical parable about hiding one’s light under a bushel, it also underscores a familiar conundrum for Clark, one that he still hasn’t resolved.
At 31, he’s probably the most acclaimed bluesman of his generation, a guitar hero of potent magnetism. Last year, he released “Gary Clark Jr. Live,” a double album that confirmed the obvious: He’s at his best in the heat and clamor of performance. But despite the implications of the title, his new album has no concept, serving up a mixed menu of styles, including boom-bap swagger (“The Healing”), rustic gospel (“Church”) and 1980s party-funk (“Can’t Sleep”).
Unlike his debut, “Blak and Blu,” it was made in Austin, Texas, Clark’s hometown, with no outside producer; he played most of the instrumental parts himself and enlisted his sisters as background singers. But while he’s well served by the rugged immediacy of the mix — make no mistake, it’s an improvement — his songwriting lags noticeably behind his musical prowess. And he sings much of the album on falsetto, a thin part of his vocal range.
Clark is smart to resist typecasting as a blues revivalist and to approach the studio as a platform distinct from the stage. Still, the standout tracks here are those that echo his live act, like “Grinder,” a heavy-blues chug. On “Stay,” he issues an exhortation much like the one on “Hold On,” but in character, with an untrustworthy, cajoling air.
* * 1/2
Nostalgia is fleeting, but it is renewable, and every few years, Duran Duran returns to remind a new set of people of a sound that, buried deep within, they love.
“Paper Gods,” the 14th Duran Duran album, and first since 2011, brims with the signature louche funk that made this group a paragon of early 1980s sleek excess. Simon Le Bon is still a fragrant, sleepy singer whose default vocal approach is the come-on.
But on “Paper Gods,” he’s newly cynical about the things that used to turn this band on. The title song, about the hollowness of beauty, almost feels like a rebuke to “Rio.” “Butterfly Girl” promisingly begins like classic Duran Duran: “By the look on your face, you’ve been awake all night.” But then Le Bon becomes a scolding elder: “I still hope you’re gonna realize/There’s only one kind of happy in that glass of wine.”
It’s a bait and switch, especially because that song features Nile Rodgers of Chic, fresh off lending his humanity to Daft Punk. It’s bulbous, throbbing disco, ecstatic and free, recalling the band’s 1980s peak, in sound if not in sentiment. That’s better than the pair of songs, “What Are The Chances?” and “The Universe Alone,” which recall an earlier stab at maturity, the soporific 1992 hit “Ordinary World.”
Largely, though, Duran Duran chooses its collaborators wisely here, opting for some from that golden age, like Rodgers, or those who’ve internalized that era’s balance of sleaze and good cheer, like Mark Ronson — who helped with the group’s last album, “All You Need Is Now” — a producer of “Pressure Off,” a blend of hard-slap funk and dreamy new wave that features Rodgers and Janelle Monáe.
So long as Le Bon is oozing atop brisk arrangements like this, the specifics of the words don’t much matter.
* * *
Transparency reigns on “Me,” the coolly assured debut album from Empress Of, aka the songwriter Lorely Rodriguez. The tracks use just her voice and her electronics, and they are as clean-lined and skeletal as a blueprint under Plexiglas. Born and raised in California and now based in Brooklyn, Rodriguez drew attention when she posted her songs in progress as “colorminutes” on YouTube. They introduced her bright, forthright voice, her thoughts of love and anxiety, and her facility with countless loops and layers.
Yet for the album, Empress Of distilled her music, ruthlessly making every sound earn its place and, as a result, making each song more focused and tenacious. “Everything Is You” begins the album with just a pinging bell tone, finger snaps and a lone vocal, asking, “Should I be afraid?” Only a few other instrumental sounds appear: gauzy chords that often cut off abruptly, a pattering programmed high-hat, sporadic bass tones. More vocal parts arrive, sometimes bolstering the lead with harmonies, sometimes wordlessly pulling away. The melody, as in most of the songs on the album, is a jumpy dotted line sketching sharp angles, a nervy but utterly precise zigzag.
Empress Of sings about closeness and alienation, good sex and bad, open longing and post-breakup memories: “I want to care much more/But I’m feeling less and less,” she sings in “Water Water.” When things are going well, as in “How Do You Do It,” the beat moves toward electronic dance music and the tunes grow more symmetrical. But there’s always tension somewhere: in a tinge of dissonance, in an insistent syncopation, in the spaces she refuses to fill in. Smartly and shrewdly, Empress Of provides the neatness of pop minus the reassurance.