Robert Cray is still a young man by blues standards but Nothin But Love is the Blues Hall Of Famer's 21st studio album and over the course of the last three decades, he has etched out a signature sound and style that has defined his work.
I was nonplussed learning rock producer Kevin Shirley produced this set, having endured some needlessly loud, bombastic blues-rock records from his past work. It took me awhile to warm up to Cray's smooth brand of blues but once I did, I didn't want anyone coming in to mess with it. It turns out I needn't have worried. Shirley either had the good sense not to mess with a winning formula or Cray, like so many veteran artists, has become so entrenched in his own sound he can't be nudged off it.
His voice is still that sweet, honey tenor we've come to love eschewing melisma and felonious impersonation of a blues singer. He doesn't have the grit or the raw power of those who came before and even a few that came since but he hasn't let that change him. What he lacks there, he makes up for in natural, unforced soulfulness.
His guitar work comes in tight, focused packages yet it feels like there's a lot it on Nothin and this is a good thing. It is rare for guitarists to embrace restraint but that's what Cray does. His phrasing remains fantastic and concentrated, true to the tone and tempo we've come to expect from him without the rapid-fire flurries of notes. Cray's playing is tasteful, tight, and terrific.
Nothin But Love is stacked with several strong cuts providing for one of the most consistent albums Cray has issued in years. "(Wont Be) Coming Home" has a stylish strut that kicks the record into gear and there's a gentle warmth to "A Memo."
Cray really shines on "Blues Get Off My Shoulder," a fantastic tune by Bobby Parker Jr. I've never heard Parker's original but it's a great song and Cray and Co. give it a classic, '50's feel with some great horn accents. The rhythm is a little heavy and plodding, squelching some of the natural swing but Cray's vocal is pure. His guitar gets a little more bite than usual but it still sounds right at home and his phrases are perfectly placed. Combine the sweet vocal, efficient and gritty guitar, and those horns and you still have one of the finest moments on the record.
"I'm Done Cryin'" is a somber, nine-minute tale of a man who has lost it all his home, his job and feels emotionally empty but Cray's vocal and guitar work tell a different tale. The protagonist may have lost everything to the point he can't cry anymore but the wounds are still fresh and deep, and his anguish is articulated with grace and style in a stream of guitar phrases played with only occasional pauses throughout the verses. Cray's weary vocal is spot on and the subliminal organ work from Jim Pugh and the string arrangement provide a touch of elegance to the epic.
Robert Cray's illustrious, Hall of Fame career has produced many highlights and Nothin But Love stands proudly among his finest work.