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Robert Cray

Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc)

Robert Cray is like one of those sluggers who bats .300, knocks 30 homers and steals 30 bases year after year. In 13 albums over two decades, Cray has consistently put up great numbers. He's given us album after album of clear, precise and emotional modern blues. As with Barry Bonds, it's easy to overlook Cray's accomplishments as the Kenny Wayne Shepherds and Jonny Langs -- the modern blues' equivalents to Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez -- come on the scene.

But listen up! Go directly to Shoulda Been Home. Bypass all those young pretenders. Start with the track "Anytime." In two bars, the Cray band establishes a deep groove. Then Cray's silky guitar glides in, dancing nimbly around the groove and yet understated beneath the vocals. "I could make you coffee, cream and sugar anytime," Cray croons. He delivers the "lost love" lines with the restraint and expressiveness of masters like Al Green and Syl Johnson, conveying just the right combination of resignation and hopefulness when he says, "I'm not lonely."

About two minutes into the track, Cray delivers a compact solo, and Jim Pugh's organ is heard for the first time. Without any change in dynamics, the band splashes another layer of emotion onto the song. When Cray's vocals return less than a minute later, his "lost love" line is higher and more passionate, moving from aching to glowing.

Cray's ability to wring emotion from a seemingly throwaway line -- "I read the Sunday paper / that takes about a week" -- is truly amazing. No, Cray isn't really doing fine, but he has enough hope to launch into a brighter vamp, which takes the song out. "Anytime" is a perfect tune, five and a half minutes of seemingly effortless soul.

That ease of expression helps explain why Cray is often underestimated, or even dismissed, by some blues critics. He can toss off straight-ahead blues like "Cry for Me Baby" or a radio-friendly ballad like "Baby's Arms" in the same graceful way Roberto Alomar steals second base. There's no better contemporary soul/blues singer, and Shoulda Been Home is as good as Cray gets.

 
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