There's something particularly reassuring about Robert Cray. He's one of the few artists whose CD's you can always buy without fear of disappointment. "Take Your Shoes Off," his debut for Rykodisc, lends further weight to that argument. Cray found the formula for success early in his career, and just keeps refining it as he gets older, so "Take Your Shoes Off" is a natural successor to "Sweet Potato Pie."
Like its predecessor, "Take Your Shoes Off" was recorded in Memphis. Cray has always expressed his admiration for O.V. Wright, who recorded there for Willie Mitchell's Hi label. Unsurprisingly, the Memphis Soul influence comes through stronger than ever, starting with the opening track ("Love Gone to Waste"), written by Mitchell and Thomas Bingham. The intro, in particular, brings to mind "Take Me To The River" by Al Green, another Hi artist.
Musically the band are as tight as you would expect from a line-up that is now several years old. The only minor change is that Cray has vacated the producer's seat for Steve Jordan (who also contributes percussion amongst other things). It also sounds like Cray's voice has developed an extra richness in tone. This is most obvious on the classy slow burners ("That Wasn't Me," and "Let Me Know"), but it's also apparent on the swinging "There's Nothing Wrong," and the punchy Soul of Mack Rice's "24-7 Man."
The track that just gets the edge over the others is "It's All Gone." Although it's got a basic, repetitive structure, the groove is infectious. With the Memphis Horns filling in in all the right places, it's just about as close to perfection as you can get. If you played "It's All Gone" in amongst a collection of the best stuff from the Hi label, you'd be hard pressed to spot that it was an interloper. It really is that good.
Special mention must be made too, of the closing track ("Tollin' Bells"). Although there's no dedication on the liner notes, it does seem a particularly timely tribute to the late Lowell Fulson, for whom Willie Dixon originally wrote the song.
With "Take Your Shoes Off", Jordan has got the balance between Cray's vocals and guitar playing just about perfect. First impressions suggest there's less guitar than normal, but closer inspection reveals that it's still there, it's just much more subtle than before. Just like a good malt whisky, Cray (and his very fine band) just keeps getting better with age. Excellent stuff!
Rykodisc web site: www.rykodisc.com
This review is copyright © 1999 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.