Robert Cray's new release, "Twenty," is only his 14th album; the title comes from the age of the soldier described in the title rack. It's a slow blues, with Cray's guitar fluttering with anxiety and stabbing with pain against the smooth groove of the organ trio behind him. "They call this a war on terror," Cray sings in the voice of the young American soldier in Iraq, "but I see a lot of civilians dying -- mothers, sons, fathers and daughters, not to mention some friends of mine."
The song reminds us that the blues needn't be sealed off in the glass case of a museum; modern life has plenty of betrayal and injustice for the genre to deal with. Presidents, after all, aren't the only ones who lie; even a hipster like "Poor Johnny" will cheat on his wife. But when his wife and mistress finally get together, his days are numbered. On "Fadin' Away," Cray could be referring to either a politician or a fickle lover when the singer tells a friend, "When you're feeling sad that you've been misled, hang on; they'll soon fade away. Ain't it a shame; no one takes the blame."
Cray recorded the album without any special guests or studio pros; he stuck with his longtime road band (keyboardist and co-producer Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes), and they reward him with a lean restraint that's the opposite of the usual blues bar-band excess. The emphasis is always on the songs (five originals by Cray, four by Pugh, one by Hayes and William Bell's 1969 chestnut "I Forgot to Be Your Lover") with the instruments providing the moody atmosphere and Cray's voice detailing blues that are as current as this morning's cell phone conversation.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere.