Endearing singer-songwriter R&B
Hailing from Cleveland, the singer-songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist Cautious Clay quit his corporate pursuits to go full-time as an artist. He got his start in music playing flute and sax in high school and continued into college at George Washington University, where he then taught himself how to produce. Since then, he’s been creating music totally on his own, with no outside intervention. He’s still “fiercely independent, but also ready for anything” in his latest LP, Deadpan Love, which is a little ironic considering all the eclectic collaborations on the album.
Deadpan Love careens through groovy R&B that is immersive and full, diaphanous and textured, with Clay’s tenor as the glue between it all. “Box of Bones” has a steady, slow clap as an otherworldly mood begins to form amidst Clay’s humming or impassioned refrain “I’m in my head, I’m in my head.” You have entered the musical mind of Cautious Clay. “Dying in the Subtlety” is a real singalong where comparisons to Jason Statham and mentions of strawberry ice cream, pain and suffering all float over a smoky backbeat and a guitar solo that could’ve been found from a neighbor’s home recording out of the ’70s.
This is one of those albums that scans as both catchy and elusive. There are so many working parts that the listener can’t really divide between this and that, which causes this escapist effect. In “Agreeable,” there’s an overdubbed, milky, semi-celestial vocals that find a groove in the chorus over a prominent but not greedy percussion and a subtle, shy guitar. It doesn’t last as long as it should, fading out before it really settles and onto the next. All the tracks are somewhat short and similar—a teaser perhaps or a song that wishes not to be drawn out, however long.
“Yes, I want the sun, but I only want to rise on occasion” is a really apposite description of this quality of the album, something Clay sings on the intro to the cleverly titled “Artificial Irrelevance.” At least he “smiles more than he laughs” and admits sometimes he feels terrified, though that too beats being alone. It’s suspended between happiness and discontent, but it signs off with the optimistic “I’ll keep fighting” and straight into “Whoa.” A signature is realized at this point in the propensity for the pared-down drums and equally diminished beat, providing the bed for Clay’s voice. It’s less an album for extraordinary, can’t-get-anywhere-else instrumentals, more a singer-songwriter’s album with a focus on emotional lyricism that can’t be undermined in a demanding note or solo.
In this way, Deadpan Love abstains from garishness while at the same time possessing a really endearing personality without all the bells and whistles, fluff and flam to patch what might be another opus’s holes and insecurities. There’s nothing deadpan about it.