It’s fair to say Robert Cray is unhappy with the President. He sings pointedly, angrily, insistently; lacing the chorus of “This Man” with a bell-clear refrain: get him out. Under this rallying cry runs a smoldering organ and thick bass- an otherwise intoxicating groove fueling his patriotic fight- showing that over four decades into his career, Robert Cray is still punching as hard as ever.
The song is like something Marvin Gaye would have been doing 50 years ago and one of four Cray originals tucked into a dozen cuts on That’s What I Heard. Infused with nods to influences ranging from Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Sam Cooke to Curtis Mayfield and Sha-Rae, this latest album is slightly reminiscent of Cray’s first studio LP 40 years ago- Who’s Been Talking– that combined his own songwriting efforts with covers of blues legends such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. It’s somewhat amazing, really, that as Cray has developed his artistic talents he’s remained virtually ageless in performance- playing guitar and, in particular, singing at such an exceptional level that his 20th studio set can feel like a follow-up to his debut. Whether punctuating the pocket with stabbing guitar on “Anything You Want,” strolling into Memphis gospel with Sunday conviction on “Burying Ground,” or matching his six-string jangle with sterling vocal vibrato on the mid-tempo blues balladry of Bland’s “You’re the One,” Cray is emotionally and musically present, pushing each cut to its convincing best.
He channels Mayfield’s upper register on the throwback soul of “You’ll Want Me Back,” then revs up the boogie, curling a Hendrix-like riff into “Hot.” And welcomes singer Steve Perry on the slower “Promises You Can’t Keep,” co-written by the album’s producer, drummer Steve Jordan. The second half of the album is slightly less diverse than its first, mostly deploying slower ballads around the strutting “Little Less Lonely” (penned by Cray’s first and current bassist, Richard Cousins) or between ravers “My Babe Likes to Boogaloo” and the closing, fuzz-toned “Do It;” that latter featuring an appearance from Sha-Rae guitarist Ray Parker, Jr. It’s on that loose, jamming finale that Cray sings what could easily be his mantra: Ready to sock it to you.