Robert Cray always flirted with gritty Southern soul, but it wasn't until Sweet Potato Pie that he made a full-fledged soul-blues record in Memphis. Cray hasn't abandoned blues, but he's woven punchy horns and sexy rhythms into the mix, resulting in one of his stronger records of the '90s. The material remains a bit uneven, but his taste is impeccable – few blues guitarists are as succinct and memorable as he, and the soul settings of Sweet Potato Pie only confirm that fact.
This time, Cray veered back toward the blues (most convincingly, too), even covering Albert King's "You're Gonna Need Me" and bemoaning paying taxes on the humorous "1040 Blues." Unlike his previous efforts, Cray produced this one himself. Also, longtime bassist Richard Cousins was history, replaced by Karl Sevareid.
One of Robert Cray's best albums ever, and the one that etched him into the consciousness of blues aficionados prior to his mainstream explosion. Produced beautifully by Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, the set sports some gorgeous originals ("Phone Booth," "Bad Influence," "So Many Women, So Little Time") and two well-chosen covers, Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Don't Touch Me" and Eddie Floyd's Stax-era "Got to Make a Comeback." Few albums portend greatness the way this one did.
Continuing his revived collaboration with producer Steve Jordan – the pair first worked together on 1999's Take Your Shoes Off, then reunited on 2014's In My Soul – Robert Cray headed to Memphis to cut his 18th studio set with members of the legendary Hi Rhythm Section. Setting up shop at Royal Studios, Cray got to work on a handful of originals and a collection of covers, not all of them strictly related to Memphis. In particular, Cray pushes swamp rocker Tony Joe White and "5" Royales leader Lowman Pauling, cutting two songs from each writer.
Robert Cray adds a bit more soul to the mix on this album, which features the Memphis Horns most prominently. Most of the songs are Cray doing what Cray does best–slow, soulful, done-me-wrong (or, alternatively, I-done-wrong) songs chock full of great guitar. No complaints there, and when he adds a bit of vocal growl here and there, as on the album opener "The Forecast (Calls for Pain)" (also featuring some excellent bass from Richard Cousins), and the slow shuffle "Holdin' Court," it keeps things interesting. This album indicates a slight shift in Cray's direction; although he's always included a touch of soul in his blues, here it's more pronounced than before, a tendency he continued in subsequent recordings.
Perhaps the most telling tune on Shoulda Been Home is the T-Bone Walker-influenced "Renew Blues," not because of the style, but because the slow blues fades out after just one tiny minute. By contrast, the mellow soul sway of "Out of Eden" stretches out to over nine minutes. Robert Cray has been heralded as a savior of modern blues, but the truth is Cray's music is much closer to the vintage soul of O.V. Wright and Otis Redding than the 12-bar form of B.B. King or Albert King. Granted, his punctuating Stratocaster guitar riffs borrow from the books of all the blues masters, but his songwriting and arranging don't. Often backed by arpeggiated guitar chords, Cray's vocals are front and center here, passionately leaning into these predominantly slow or mid-tempo tunes. By contrast, only a couple of cuts are upbeat enough to really get the knees a-shakin'. The infectious opening cut "Baby's Arms" – the best tune on the record – could have been a hit single for Stax Records, and Sir Mack Rice's upbeat "Love Sickness" was a hit for Stax Records. Meanwhile, "Help Me Forget," with its mellow, candlelight mood, could have been a hit for Barry White.
Cray found himself in some pretty intimidating company for this Grammy-winning blues guitar summit meeting, but he wasn't deterred, holding his own alongside his idol Albert Collins and Texas great Johnny Copeland. Cray's delivery of Muddy Waters' rhumba-rocking "She's into Something" was one of the set's many highlights…