With his chocolaty cool, soulful Memphis croon and sure sense of melody, Robert Cray has never been considered a straightahead bluesman. His often interchangeable albums have instead stayed closer to R&B, adding compact, stinging lead guitar to songs about matters of the heart. That formula remains, with minor variations, on Cray's 14th release, rather confusingly named Twenty. The title track, a gripping, emotional anti-war ballad of the experience of a GI in Iraq (that, incidentally, doesn't contain the word "twenty") shows the singer/songwriter shifting his emotionally charged storytelling lyrics to the political arena. It's a brief but confident detour from his usual M.O. of relationships on the brink of collapse or in general disrepair, typically related in the first person. Subtle yet effective forays into loungey jazz on "My Last Regret" and even reggae on the opening "Poor Johnny" indicate a healthy tendency to push his established envelope, if only gently, into other genres. But Cray sticks to his established bread and butter for the majority of this sturdy album, effortlessly churning out shoulder-swaying, foot-tapping R&B accompanied by a clean, clear tenor voice and a road-hardened band that finesses these songs with the perfect combination of fire and ice. Old fans won't be disappointed, and newcomers can start here and work backwards.
The set that made Cray a pop star, despite its enduring blues base. Cray's smoldering stance on "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door" rendered him the first sex symbol to emerge from the blues field in decades, but it was his innovative expansion of the genre itself that makes this album a genuine 1980s classic. "Nothing but a Woman" boasts an irresistible groove pushed by the Memphis Horns and some metaphorically inspired lyrics, while "I Wonder" and "Guess I Showed Her" sizzle with sensuality.
The contemporary blues bannerman's recording debut (originally released as Who's Been Talkin' in 1980), while naturally not as strong as his later work (especially Bad Influence, released five years later), is the work of an extremely promising artist. The album is an appealing mix of standards (Willie Dixon's "Too Many Cooks," Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talkin'," O.V. Wright's "I'm Gonna Forget About You," among others) and originals. Among the strongest of the latter are the slow blues "I'd Rather Be a Wino" and the closing number, "If You're Thinkin' What I'm Thinkin'," which contains the flavorful mix of tight rhythms, excellent guitar work, strong vocals, and bittersweet mood that would become Cray's hallmark.
Showdown! is a blues album by Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland, released in 1985 through Alligator Records. The album won the Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy Award in 1986. 2011 release includes bonus track.