Who says sticking to a proven formula is a bad thing?
For those of you who thought Cray’s last effort was a nice sizzling slab o’ soul, his follow-up continues the tradition. Shoulda Been Home picks up where Take Your Shoes Off left off, and carries the groove forward in a manner that would have made the folks at Stax proud. In fact, Cray and the band proudly display such influences on most of the tracks here.
A word of caution for guitar-freaks: if you’re looking for a heapin’ helpin’ of prime Cray solos, be forewarned that his guitar-slinging is pushed to the background for purposes of this record, only popping out when necessary. But when he does, you better make sure you got your fire extinguisher handy. Rather, the focus is on Cray’s soulful vocal chops. Pretty risky move for a guy who’s made his name with his guitar, but the gamble paid off. Cray’s voice is so soulful it’ll almost make you forget the guitar is his claim to fame.
Perhaps the biggest differences between this record and its predecessor are the theme and the tone. Granted, they both carry that in-the-pocket Memphis-groove throughout; but where Take Your Shoes Off was lighter in mood and more upbeat in its tone, Shoulda Been Home carries a darker one, a more world-weary attitude. “Baby’s Arms,” which could easily have been an outtake from Shoes, gets things off to an upbeat start. The music moves from the linear form to the more apprehensive, and by the third track, the Stax/Volt groove has inherited a darker, more insistent tone. “Anytime” speaks of the desire to listen to someone who has been in bad love. The cover of Sir Mack Rice’s “Love Sickness” is good and greasy, while “I’m Afraid” and “No One Special” ache with beautiful riffs and drum/bass lines that would make Lewis Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr. proud.
“Out of Eden” is a live-in-the-studio workout that features plenty of Cray’s bluesy fretwork and a shuffle-beat to die for, all the while maintaining the dark tone of the record: the lyrics speak of innocence lost. This is the kind of song you listen to while driving in the middle of the night. At nine-plus minutes, it goes by in a second.
The next three tracks, however, were the hardest for this happily married reviewer to listen to, at least with respect to the lyrics. “Far Away” is written from the point of view of a man who, to put it nicely, is tired of being a father and husband and wants to be free. Here is not the place to argue over the merits of this song, or who it’s aimed at, but don't we have enough fatherless children? And single moms trying to provide for their family because the man of the house “just had to be free”? The last thing we need is somebody cheering on the man for his (in)actions. The biggest irony is that this song was co-written by Cray’s wife, Sue. Hope she’s not trying to tell him something! Of course, the music is brilliantly hypnotic, which made this rant a little less difficult to write.
"Far Away", in the context of the following two numbers, begins to make sense. The next track, "Renew Blues," is a bluesy off-the-cuff jam. I guess the musical story trying to be conveyed is the man coming back, saying, “Sorry, baby,” and the lady’s new husband answering the door. Which leads to the next track, “Help Me Forget,” which has (presumably) the same guy wishing for someone to help him forget about the huge mistake he just made.
Maybe it’s all related. Maybe I’m just paranoid.
The record comes to a slam-bang close with “The 12-Year Old Boy” and the band takes it home from there. Cray's group is indisputably a band, even if the records are by, as Cray says, tongue-in-cheek, “Robert Cray and His Three Dummies.” The focus may be on the leader, but Cray redirects the spotlight on his bandmates, his soul compadres who have been with him since the big success of “Smoking Gun."
The gun is definitely still smoking and is being maintained regularly. Cray says this may be the last record the band does in this vein, which would be bittersweet. However, with their track record in prowling around new and old blues grounds, the next record should be just as sweet. It is definitely worth waiting for.