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Robert Cray

It's starting to feel as if Robert Cray's band, with its 14th album, has become the Hootie and the Blowfish of early 21st century blues.

Cray is an admirable guitarist--especially in a live context--and a likeable, nonthreatening bandleader. Although he's often called a bluesman, he's primarily a blues-inspired soul crooner, which is most evident when he allows his tenor to become breathy and light, almost like a musical meringue. He and his group play thoughtful, well-crafted and professionally executed tunes that ultimately are tastefully boring.

Minutes after playing Twenty for the second time, I had a hard time remembering most of the songs. The title track is a heartfelt evocation of an American soldier's tragically short stint in Iraq, but the arrangement limps along sluggishly with barely the shadow of a melody. By the way, how often have we heard lately songs about mamas cryin' for their sons off fighting a rich man's war?

Let's see, what else? "That Ain't Love" works adequately as a mid-tempo dance number, infused with hints of funky bayou rock. But that comes from my notes; I couldn't hum its tune if my life depended on it.

"Does It Really Matter?" flirts with the promise of being a smokin' R&B rave-up but ends up stalling for lack of frenzy. Just imagine how this number might've sounded in the hands of a more energetic band, such as the Fleshtones or, to be more contemporary, the North Mississippi Allstars.

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