Written by Kristin Mento (@kris513creative)
Gerald Clark is a true South African music industry veteran. With just over a decade of experience in the industry, even those who have never heard his music should recognise the name.
Regarding his career, Gerald started out as the front-man for Delta Blue, a blues outfit that toured both nationally and internationally between 1999 and 2005. Thereafter, he decided to launch a solo career, garnering much attention from the Afrikaans community with his album Sweepslag, which received three Tempo nominations, two Vonk nominations and even a SAMA nomination for Best Alternative Afrikaans Album. Over the years, Gerald has also collaborated with many big-name artists in the SA music industry from Albert Frost to Bok van Blerk and Van Coke Kartel.
Now, if you’ve been a long-time Gerald Clark fan, you’d probably already know about the health challenges that he’s been facing over the past 2 years. If you don’t know, here’s a quick breakdown: there was a growth obstructing his vocal chords, he recently had it removed and he is now recuperating. Of course, illness is always more complex than that, but instead of getting into that story, I’d say that the man is likely to prefer the spotlight on his musical prowess. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to the Gerald Clark ‘Black Water’ benefit concert held in August, it’s clear that SA music industry all-stars and Clark fans are rallying behind him and wish him the best of luck with his recuperation.
But for now, back to the album at hand…
Aesthetically, the ‘Black Water’ album cover is simple, dark and has just a hint of grain. It shouts ‘low-down dirty blues’ without trying too hard to look edgy. The night-time landscape shot of a bayou-looking river scene on the inner sleeves of the cover was a great choice and the complimentary fold-out Black Water illustration inside is a pleasantly surprising find. However, the lyrics of the songs were not included in the sleeve. At first, I thought it would have been nice to follow the words of the songs and gain a better understanding of what Clark is singing about, but after a while I realised that his songs are so damn catchy that – for better or worse – you’ll learn the lyrics in no time.
On this album, Clark remains true to his blues/country-soul style from the first riff to the last. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he hopped straight off the back of a dusty, old pick-up truck and into the studio. He offers the listener a range of sounds that have a distinct American, deep-south feel from good ol’ fashioned blues to 50s-style rock-a-billy tunes. However, I do find myself saying, “Is this track still playing?!” when it comes to certain songs…
‘Black Water’: Songs of note
Track 1: ‘It Aint You’
This is a great introductory track because it sets the tone of the album perfectly, but the lyrics are a tad clichéd for my liking – hearing “I’ve been drinking hard liquor” and “I just can’t find no one to love” in a quintessential blues song is no surprise. I also can’t shake the feeling that Clark seems to be trying too hard to sound bluesy with his vocals at some points in this song – namely, whenever a word is loud and drawn-out. I find it makes the track drag a bit. However, there’s something about the musicality and phrasing of the “It aint, it aint, it aint you” line that grabs me and pulls me back into the song each time I start to wander.
Track 3: ‘Giving Up On Love’
“Harris? Harris. What’ya gonna do with them chicken bones?”
The quirky opening dialogue alone is enough to make this song memorable, although I’m not sure how it relates to the actual song at all…meh. Who cares! Points for a unique and entertaining intro. Once the harmonica blows and the tune kicks in, you’ll soon realise that it is a stripped-down soulful blues-rock track that you would expect to hear in an awesomely dark and dingy small-town bar somewhere in the deep south. This track will get any old soul or blues enthusiast bobbing their head.
Track 4: ‘Aint Going To Heaven’
Ok, the main reason I’m mentioning this fast-paced, light-hearted track is because I laugh every time I hear the opening tune. It brings to mind a satirical image of a lekker summer hillbilly jol on the bayou complete with grilled possum on the barbecue and chewing tobacco. It could also possibly be the perfect chase scene for a cartoon or southern comedy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to insult Clark or his music at all. I’m just appreciating this light-hearted tune placed in the midst of some heavier ones. Every album needs a ‘dance’ track and this one begs the listener to grab a partner and do-si-do.
Track 5: ‘Breaking Down’
Digging this track so much right now. Soulful, mellow, effortless, smooth, funky and fun, this song is perfect for a summer road trip or a chill vibe with friends. The musicality of it mimics that brink of frustration that we all reach at some point in our lives before we sigh and calmly say “Ag, screw it” then grab a cold one, kick back and make peace with our troubles. The build-up to the chorus seems to take you just high enough before a funky break lets you down gently and eases you back into the track with a light yet soulful, funky guitar riff. One of the reasons why this track works so well is because nothing is forced or overdone from a musical perspective. It’s like a jam session between friends that just happened to be recorded.
Track 6: ‘Poor Man Blues’
This mellow New Orleans swing-style blues track is the perfect follow up to ‘Breaking Down’. It’s an easy-listening tune for those lazy days or great background music for a light-hearted social event or dinner party. Once again, the lyrics are cliché, but the pleasantly surprising tune will have you snapping your fingers along to the beat and learning the words of the song in no time.
Track 9: ‘House of the Rising Sun’ (a cover of the original track performed by The Animals in 1964)
The first word that comes to mind: Fast. Clark’s cover of this song brings to mind images of a hillbilly trying to hop across hot coals. This fast-paced cover causes the emotion behind the words of the song to get lost in the music and I found myself struggling to grasp the lyrics, which was a pity because they really are quite beautiful and descriptive. In fact, the lyrics were so lost in the fast pace of the music that I didn’t even realise this track was a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ until the third time I’d listened to it! Needless to say, I’m not a fan. Some songs are slow-paced for a reason and should remain that way.
Track 12: ‘Marry Me’
This sickeningly sweet love song of the album was used for SA’s Wedding Week in 2011 and is reminiscent of a scene out of a musical in which a young, naive couple pledges their undying love for one another while frolicking through a field of daisies (rainbows and unicorns, optional). Not much else to say except that the harmonising heard in the bridge and the chorus is well done and true to that iconic wholesome, southern music style. I’ve read that this track is a taste of what to expect from Clark in the future. If this is true, I can’t say that I’m particularly thrilled. I guess I just prefer gritty, bluesy Clark to the whimsical, sweet version.
Track 13: ‘As the Crow Flies’
If this song sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it blaring from your TV before. Clark collaborated with Theo Crous on ‘As the Crow Flies’ which was recorded for use in the 2011 Volkswagen Amarok TV ad campaign. Thanks to the media, it’s difficult to listen to this track without envisioning a Volkswagen Amarok racing down a dirt road and conquering rough terrain somewhere in the Karoo. This song is the epitome of dirty, sexy southern rock, complete with electrifying guitar riffs. I would love to see and hear it performed live – no holds barred with a little more vocal and musical freedom. I think it would really come alive and bring down the house.
I must say, I really appreciate the wide range of southern-style blues/country-soul rock that Clark has offered on ‘Black Water’. Ironically, the title track (track 2) didn’t really move me one way or another. The guitar solos in the intro and middle are great, but something about that heavy, repetitive drum beat in the verses put me off after a while. However, this is the one song that seems a bit more musically free than the others on the album. Throughout the song, you can clearly hear that Clark and his band are enjoying themselves and revelling in the music.
I understand that Clark’s vocals have been affected by his unfortunate medical condition until just recently, but I think short, quick lyrical phrasing and a moderate-to-low vocal decibel level suits his voice best. I am pleasantly surprised to say that on this album, Clark shows no sign of experiencing any vocal difficulty. Although this genre can be quite forgiving and allow for mediocre vocals, ‘Black Water’ encompasses pure, quality blues and country-rock at its best.