Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Robert Cray Band

  • Who's Been Talkin' [Tomato, 1980] B
  • Bad Influence [HighTone, 1983] B+
  • False Accusations [HighTone, 1985] A-
  • Strong Persuader [Mercury, 1986] A+
  • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark [Mercury, 1988] A-
  • Midnight Stroll [Mercury, 1990] **
  • I Was Warned [Mercury, 1992] A-
  • Shame and a Sin [Mercury, 1993] A-
  • Some Rainy Morning [Mercury, 1995] Dud
  • Sweet Potato Pie [Mercury, 1997] Neither
  • Heavy Picks: The Robert Cray Collection [Mercury, 1999] A-
  • Take Your Shoes Off [Rykodisc, 1999] *
  • Shoulda Been Home [Ryko, 2001] ***
  • Time Will Tell [Sanctuary, 2003] ***
  • Twenty [Sanctuary, 2005] ***
  • That's What I Heard [Nozzle/Thirty Tigers, 2020] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Who's Been Talkin' [Tomato, 1980]
Hailed by the ever tightening knot of blues loyalists as the next . . . Son Seals?, Cray can recite his catechism without kowtowing to orthodoxy--guitar like Albert Collins only chillier and more staccato, voice like B.B. King only cleaner and, well, thinner. Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf songs lead for good reason, but both artist and producers write with uncommon acidity (try "Nice as a Fool Can Be" and "The Score" respectively) and country-soul cult hero O.V. Wright adds the right kind of historical perspective. A little more vocal muscle and he might compete with . . . Son Seals. B

Bad Influence [HighTone, 1983]
Finally he sounds like the comer they rave about: side one is as engaging a 17:04 of new blues as I've heard in a decade. Ranging from down-and-out aab to lounge-tinged soul cry on the first two cuts, the songwriting had me caring less about the singing, especially given the chop-and-roll guitar. But whenever the material fails to provide its own highs, Cray's inability to reach for extra power or sweetness makes a difference. B+

False Accusations [HighTone, 1985]
After several metastases worth of bar smoke, Cray's voice has finally changed: his singing is strong and unashamed, adorned only by his waste-free guitar. But what makes Cray a major artist in an obsolescent style is the songs, the sharpest often written by his producers. Dennis Walker is the obsessed sinner ("Porch Light"'s guilt-as-pleasure, "I've Slipped Her Mind"'s month after), Bruce Bromberg a/k/a D. Amy more the all-purpose pro, though "Playin' in the Dirt" certainly feels lived in. And Cray, who has a credit on that one, gets all of "The Last Time (I Get Burned Like This)." Not since Moe Bandy was an honest man has anyone laid out the wages of fucking around with such unflagging precision. A-

Strong Persuader [Mercury, 1986]
At thirty-three, Cray is a mature multithreat talent: fearless formal innovator, brainy bandleader, terse yet fluent guitarist, and--amazingly, given where he started--the most authoritative singer to emerge from blues since Bland and King. Add an array of gems as perfectly realized as Randy Newman's 12 Songs and you have not just a great blues album but a great album. Cray's sexual roles range from the good-time man of "Nothing but a Woman" to the cuckold-turned-predator of "New Blood" to the suspicious schmuck of Dennis Walker's outrageous "I Guess I Showed Her," who bests the woman he caught "having lunch with some new guy" by abandoning her to the house, the car, and no him. But it's the remorseful lust of the title character, who sits listening impassively through thin apartment walls as the woman he's just chalked up breaks with her husband, that dominates a cold-eyed country-influenced record occupying uncharted territory on the blues side of soul--full of feeling, yet chary of soul's redemptive promise. A+

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark [Mercury, 1988]
Yeah, I could live without David Sanborn myself, but if you leave it at that you're refusing to hear a major artist who bends blues tradition to his own artistic ends as surely as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, a suave cool motherfucker obsessed with the male sex roles blues defined for rock and roll. No shit--his determination to bring his tradition into the pop present equals his determination to escape the cultural residue and/or primal urge that compels him to pitch woo, talk murder, and make obscene phone calls. Because this life-project can never end, a continuing tension stretches and strengthens his music. The songs here aren't as consistently amazing as Strong Persuader's, but all that means is that Cray and his writers are mortal. Summing up is Bruce Bromberg's "Night Patrol," in which a laid-off streetstalker, tortured quote unquote by his bad habits quote unquote, joins the homeless legions whose ways he knows so well. A-

Midnight Stroll [Mercury, 1990]
few if any soul men play better, not many write better, plenty arrange better, almost all sing better--a formula for the blues ("These Things," "My Problem") **

I Was Warned [Mercury, 1992]
Where the misguided soul strategy of Midnight Stroll emphasized undigested horn arrangements and vocals Cray couldn't handle, this aims for AOR guitar hooks--every solo stings, and with producer Dennis Walker foregrounded again, every song catches. But the biggest difference is that the two have abandoned their evil ways--the part of the mean mistreater is invariably played by one of the women traditionally handed that role in blues culture. There's no point calling this a sexist sellout when it makes sense developmentally--the pain and cruelty of Cray's and Walker's songs always made you fear for their personal lives, and I bet their lovers (and ex-lovers) think it's about time they dealt in straightforward bull like "I'm a Good Man." The mood is penitent, full of pleas for time to work things out and summed up by "A Whole Lotta Pride"'s "Do you have to leave me baby/Just to even up the score?" There's room for Walker's Nashvillian expertise in tragic marriage, too. But connoisseurs may well prefer the perverse kick of the band-written "Our Last Time," in which an impassively disconsolate Cray watches his latest conquest dress after "the sweat begins to dry," certain without a word from her that she'll never come back for seconds. A-

Shame and a Sin [Mercury, 1993]
Out from under Dennis Walker, Cray sounds less twisted, his thwarted-love compulsions a species of good old-fashioned blues suffering. He shuffles and slides like he's been studying up on his Chess reissues, and the directness carries over into his good old-fashioned soul exhortations. He even fools around a little, as if finally convinced that his guitar ain't no joke. A-

Some Rainy Morning [Mercury, 1995] Dud

Sweet Potato Pie [Mercury, 1997] Neither

Heavy Picks: The Robert Cray Collection [Mercury, 1999]
You want proof of greatness, stick with Strong Persuader. You couldn't care less, this expedient survey documents his staying power as a songman. The opener literally cuts to the chase: He's just gotten to Chicago with a dime to his name, which he invests in a number on a phone booth wall. A-

Take Your Shoes Off [Rykodisc, 1999]
T-Bone Walker as Jerry Butler, only not as good ("There's Nothing Wrong," "What About Me"). *

Shoulda Been Home [Ryko, 2001]
pushing 50, on the road, and "afraid to let this one go" ("No One Special," "Baby's Arms") ***

Time Will Tell [Sanctuary, 2003]
"Real" bluesman or not, he writes subtler songs than blues boosters can hear ("Up in the Sky," "Survivor"). ***

Twenty [Sanctuary, 2005]
"I wanna see you burn all the way down/I wanna see your ashes all over the ground" ("My Last Regret," "Twenty"). ***

That's What I Heard [Nozzle/Thirty Tigers, 2020]
At 66, one of the sharpest songwriters ever to identify bluesman identifies the abuser in the house and invents a dance called the FBI ("This Man," "Burying Ground," "Anything You Want," "My Baby Likes to Boogaloo") ***

See Also