Robert Cray

Time Will Tell

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Even diehard Robert Cray fans admit that over the course of the last decade, the singer/guitarist/songwriter has crafted albums that are practically interchangeable. Although Cray has created his own niche with a slick but powerful Memphis-styled R&B/soul/blues stew, his sound become repetitious; even though the songs' quality remained way above average. Since leaving Ryko (after two albums), he and keyboardist Jim Pugh -- an increasingly pivotal player in Cray's work -- produced this 13th disc between labels. That provided them the freedom to experiment without corporate intervention. While his "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" ethic allowed multiple Grammy wins, Cray clearly wanted to step outside the box he built, resulting in a slightly different direction this time around. Those who enjoy the comfy fit of his previous work have little to fear; there is plenty of the love-lost/found R&B that he's known for. In particular "Lotta Lovin'" is a pleasant ballad that is about as novel as its pedestrian title. "Spare Some Love" likewise treads familiar musical ground although lyrics about finding love before getting old and frail ("I can only hang so long/ if I go another week/ I might have just passed on") show Cray may be feeling his mortality. But the slightly off-kilter Sly & the Family Stone horns from Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini on "Your Pal" twist that tune towards a more edgy approach. On the album's leadoff track, Cray unloads more unusual -- at least for him -- material. The opening tune, "Survivor," is a protest tune about the Middle East war ("you take a little schoolboy and teach him who to hate/ then you send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait") with Pugh's minor key piano adding a curious boogie-woogie feel. "Distant Shore" is likewise anti-war with a deceptively bubbly percolating beat. "Up in the Sky" finds Cray debuting on electric sitar. It's a slightly psychedelic slant, more commendable for the guitarist dipping his toes into unlikely musical waters than for its clunky and slightly depressing lyrics about an older couple wanting to die together. It is also one of two tracks accompanied by the Turtle Island String Quartet, another unique addition. "Back Door Slam" -- likely a play on the "Back Door Man" cliché of so many blues tunes -- might be the funkiest Cray has gotten; and his shimmering guitar solo is just tangled enough to push the song into more exotic territory. While he's not making radical moves, Time Will Tell is a promising route for Robert Cray. If anything, he hasn't gone far enough afield from his MO to attract a new audience. Meanwhile, established fans should welcome the few newfound twists in the soul/bluesman's approach.

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