Robert Cray / Robert Cray Band

That's What I Heard

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That's What I Heard Review

by Mark Deming

Robert Cray was hailed as the man who saved the blues from commercial extinction when his album Strong Persuader became a breakout hit in 1986, and blues fans are still the bedrock of his following. But anyone who has been paying attention can tell you that vintage soul and R&B have always had more to do with his best music than standard-issue 12-bar blues. Cray's albums with drummer/producer Steve Jordan -- 1999's Take Your Shoes Off, 2014's In My Soul, and 2017's Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm -- have put his Southern soul influences up front, and that doesn't change in his fourth project with Jordan, 2020's That's What I Heard. Something else that doesn't change is how comfortable Cray sounds with this material, and how well his unfussy but passionate vocal style, narrative lyrical stance, and exciting but never overdone guitar features blend with the soul grooves generated by Cray's band and the guests brought in for the occasion. (Jordan himself plays drums or percussion on most of the tracks.) "You're the One" is a smooth R&B number with a strong Sam Cooke vibe, "This Man" is powered by a groove that's lean but full of funk, "Hot" is an uptempo workout that pulls out the stops, "Promises You Can't Keep" is a slow and sorrowful testimony to a romance on the rocks, and "Burying Ground" is an effective detour into gospel. Cray wrote five of this album's songs, and it's telling that they blend so seamlessly with the vintage soul and R&B tunes that share space in the set, and though he stretches out more on guitar than the average soul man, he has both the chops and the taste to make that work for him. Cray generally isn't one to deal in politics, but the metaphor of "This Man" is clear and well-chosen. At a time when deep Southern soul isn't doing a whole lot better than the blues in the marketplace, Robert Cray is an effective cheerleader for both forms, and That's What I Heard shows that after 40 years of record-making, he's in no way tired or short on ideas and inspiration.

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