Since he arrived on the national scene with his album Who's Been Talkin' in 1980, Robert Cray's name has been practically synonymous with writing perceptive and mature songs about relationships - with a notable theme being temptation and its aftermath.
So it's surprising to hear Cray open his latest album, Time Will Tell, with "Survivor," a song that offers a strong anti-war message set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq. That theme reappears later on the album with "Distant Shore," another anti-war tune written by Jim Pugh, Cray's long-time keyboardist.
At a time when the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Steve Earle and John Mellencamp have faced backlashes ranging from severe (for the Dixie Chicks) to mild (for Mellencamp's "To Washington"), raising questions about American foreign policy can be a risky venture for musicians.
Cray, however, had no problems speaking out.
"Whatever happens, happens," he says. "That's the way this band has always been. We play what we do. And this happens to be something nobody's seen before, but it's who we are."
In talking to the guitarist, it quickly became clear how passionately he feels about the risks involved with the Iraq war.
"I just had to put what I did in the song," he says of "Survivor." "It was just inside. I've just been so pissed. My wife and I, we'd talk about it all the time. It would be a topic of conversation on the news. I'd listen to news radio. And I read the paper all the time. It's undeniable."
"Survivor" starts out as a message of personal perseverance, but by the third verse, Cray shifts the lyrics toward a global outlook, focusing on the risks of the war in the Middle East with the line "You're trying to change a world you don't understand."
The topical side of the Robert Cray Band - which in addition to Cray and Pugh includes drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid - isn't the only fresh dimension to Time Will Tell.
The album also explores some new musical territory for the Grammy-winning guitarist and his group.
While Cray's familiar blend of blues and soul is still a prominent part of Time Will Tell on songs such as the gritty and vaguely spooky "Back Door Slam," the spunky horn-spiced "Your Pal" and the smooth ballad "I Didn't Know," the album also features some of Cray's most experimental material. "Survivor" mixes a Caribbean beat with a bluesy vibe and a rolling piano line from Pugh. "Distant Shore" also has a world beat dimension with its Latin rhythm and percolating organ.
On the whole, Cray says he thinks the new album is the most diverse of the 12 albums he's released over the course of his career.
"I think we've stepped out in the past, but no, not like on Time Will Tell," Cray says. "When you look at something like 'Up in the Sky,' which is a song written by our keyboard player, Jim Pugh, it's a great song. And what we did on this record was just to have fun. Jim said 'I've got this song, it's kind of got this Indian flavor to it -- I'd like for you to play electric sitar on it.' I said 'You're kidding me.' He said 'No, man, I'm serious.' I said 'OK, man, I dig it.'"
Cray says the musical experiments on Time Will Tell didn't happen because he felt the group needed to shake up their sound. But he said the fact that his previous two albums, Take Your Shoes Off (a 1999 Grammy-winning release) and Shoulda Been Home (2001), had been largely overlooked helped foster an anything-goes attitude with the Time Will Tell project.
"I think that there was probably a little disappointment from the fact that the last two records -- one of which was Grammy material -- and you know, nothing really happened with them (commercially)," Cray says. "Also, you know, there are a lot of other factors involved. The way radio is set up these days, it's not as open as it used to be. And the kind of music that we play -- obviously we don't get that much airplay -- but it seems like we're getting less and less. And I think the frustration because of the fact that not many people heard the last two records we just decided we'd just go in, do what we do and just have at it."
The Lion Sleeps No More -- The last time Pedro the Lion was in town they were opening for Death Cab for Cutie at a club that didn't quite fit the persona of the band. In a flash of personal confession, David Bazan proclaimed that he was off dairy and that it was messing with his body. It could have been considered a sign of the apocalypse, but disaster was averted and the lion slept.
Cut to the present. Pedro the Lion has got a new record out, with big things in the works and some surprises as well. But talk to David Bazan and you wouldn't know which direction the sky is. Bazan has got to be one of the most bummed-out public personas of the last quarter-century. Don't confuse bummed-out with hopeless, though; there's more to the man than that. Perhaps one of the most sincere and heartbreaking writers in music today, Bazan takes it all in stride. "For breakfast. I usually have a cup of coffee, or maybe some eggs but usually just coffee," Bazan says. Pedro the Lion was born in the Emerald City in '91 and has had a revolving lineup of players anchored by Bazan.
"I was in Seattle for most of high school and started Pedro a little while after that," he recalls. What came next was a slew of EPs and albums that found Bazan as the darling of the depressed and dejected everywhere. The depression, however, was in the down tempo of his music and vocal delivery. Not everything he vocalized was a total castoff to the abyss. His lyrics are often dark and tend to deal with the ugly side of humanity. But there's always room for improvement, right? Perhaps it's this unbelief in the goodness of people that prompts Bazan's cynical and often multifaceted approach to music or maybe it's something different altogether. One thing is certain, he keeps up his shrouded psyche in the truest form on Pedro's current album.
The latest offering from the band Achilles Heel (Jade Tree) finds Bazan once again endeavoring to create a concept album -- not a concept album in the sense of something completely inaccessible but a composition that is more thematic. He's after an album as a whole, not just a collection of songs. "I think I really tried to do that [concept] thing since Winners ... but it wasn't until Control and now this record that I was able to get out from under it," says Bazan. "I might go back to it, but for now I don't really care for it." The result is a magnificent, crowning album of a trilogy of releases that defined Pedro the Lion. Much more influenced by some of the bands Bazan admires, including the Beatles, the sound on Achilles Heel is decidedly more poppy and introduces a fascinating sense of movement, instrumentally and lyrically.
The shows supporting this album have been nothing less than amazing, according to Bazan. Pedro played a supporting role to Death Cab for Cutie earlier in the year and had a chance to break in the new songs. "It was really great. We got to play short sets. We got up there and blew out our set and then we could go drink or whatever." With as much work as the band was doing over the last year, there was still a daunting task hanging over the Pedro camp. The band had typically been a three-piece but they were down to a duo. Though it was an issue to perform as just a two-piece, Bazan didn't get distracted: "It's definitely not as fun, but the show we played at the Detour was super awesome for us. We just had a blast." At present, however, Pedro has added a bass player, Ken Maiuri, and things have been moving forward for them. -- in more ways than one.
There have been developments between Bazan and T.W. Walsh, an integral piece of Pedro the Lion, which have led to the forthcoming T.W. Walsh solo album. There are also plans for another album under the moniker the Headphones. "I've been wanting to do this for a while now. The stuff is a lot more synthesizer-driven." On a different frontier, Bazan will be moving into the unknown realm of parenthood soon and deeper into this experiment called life. But one thing is certain: There will always be the lion slumbering below. --Clint Burgess
Giddyup, Mon -- There are some things that just don't go together. Some of which include drinking orange juice right after you brush your teeth; a strawberry milkshake after a full sushi dinner; and, let's not forget, wearing a suit coat over a T-shirt and jeans. At first glance, the Reggae Cowboys seem to be flirting dangerously close to that list of things you don't want to mix. But given a closer look, there are elements of what this band does that ebb and flow with an almost logical context. One thing for sure: They'll fit right in at this year's Brews, Blues and Reggae Festival atop Silver Mountain.
Fronted by the incomparable Stone Ranger, this band of dreadlock-clad, hat-wearing Caribbean cowboys serves up reggae with a country flair. But there is more to it than just the hats. Front man Ranger has an affinity for the black cowboys who helped settle the western United States and for giving the old West some of the mystique it was known for. The music of the Reggae Cowboys fuses the laid-back, groove feeling of the islands with subjects that are more western than country but aren't limited to simple discussions about dogs or pickup trucks. The band formed in Toronto in 1993 and has been shattering stereotypes ever since.
Over the last few years, the group has developed something of a cult following. Imagine for a moment showing up at a rodeo to take in some cowboy culture and finally using those cowboy boots that have been sitting in the closet for years. Then you catch the sound of Bob Marley-style guitars and a reggae vocalist belting out songs that can get even hardcore line dancers out onto the dance floor. But that's what it's all about these days: Artists have to serve their innate sense for creation while also making it accessible to the listener. What could be more accessible than cowboys playing reggae? That may sound tongue in cheek, but these guys are serious about what they do and have been lauded by their peers. The band even played a Bob Marley Festival in Miami headed up by Marley's relatives.
As the novelty wears off of seeing the visual juxtaposition presented by the Reggae Cowboys, the music is then given the chance to really shine through. The band's latest release, "Stone Ranger" (Fifty Fifty Music) is full of sparkling moments of interplay between Ranger and his Caribbean compatriots Click Masta Sync, Hitman Sty and Marshall K, (rhythm guitar, drums and bass, respectively). Theirs is truly a sound like no other, presented by genuine propagators of the craziest sound this side of Kingston.