With a Ray Davies-like vocal delivery, mountains of songwriting credits, Clair's gritty and provocative songs are kicked into high gear with the muscular and stirring chops of the mighty Pushbacks.
"A fearless performer" —San Antonio Express
“Clair is laid-back - yet very New York, proving that's possible.”—Village Voice
A career-spanning Album Review of “What Luck” (Recorded, Austin, TX in 2006)
-By Bob Huff
It may be a sign of better times when a mid-career recording artist like Stephen Clair continues to grow in his art even as his aspirations for that career become more domestic. With What Luck, Clair’s fourth full-length album, the wry troubadour leaves the road but steps onto a bigger stage, with a bigger sound, better musicians, and richer songs than before. This is growth that was difficult or impossible to achieve back when artists depended on the recording industry for permission to survive and thrive in their art. But Clair—like many other artists who’ve left that path—continues to work; writing, living, and periodically recording, and in doing so has become stronger and, frankly, more awesome as a storyteller and entertainer.
Clair’s songs have always come from the universe in a moment: on Altoona Hotel, it’s the sound of a radio wafting from a car parked in the yard, and you can feel how those long summer days stretched on; on Little Radio they are the reflections of a young man dropped into the punky, quirky city, staggered by urban affairs but never strangled by irony; and on Under the Bed, with its lonesome view from the road, the moments are of homeward longing wherein songs and singer become classical and wise. This is growth and change, chronicled in recording the small moments along the way, then fixing them in sound skillfully and soulfully, but never so seriously that the twinkle in Clair’s eye is masked.
On What Luck Clair sets out where the big ships sail, and with the wind of Rich Brotherton’s amazing studio band at his back, this is an easy and pleasurable recording with no letdowns. Clair’s vocals are intimate and warm and though the classic country sound is big and breezy (and one might occasionally miss Clair’s magical guitar spinning) there are darker moments as the songs turn to observe how life impinges on the wandering troubadour. Lyrics are still lifted from glancing moments—from the quality of the coffee to the wrinkles in the suit—but there is more self-examination and looking back than before: the hapless admission from the rubble that “I Said the Wrong Thing,” the aching notes of loss in “Long Lost Friend” and “Sunday Daddy.” Irritation with a fan appears on “Don’t Give Me That Look” and with the neighbor’s kids (or is it the spouse?) in “Screaming Contest,” though these are balanced by lighter fantasies about greener grass in “The Woman I’m Not Married To” and “Your Woman’s Cooking Is Too Good.”
At the end of the day all frustrations are brushed aside by the moment in which Clair pauses to marvel, “Your Love Gets Me.” This is the emotional anchor of the album (and the kind of classic melody you’ll still be singing fifty years from now). On What Luck Clair deals with the cracks and doubts that make up the fabric of a real life lived over the long haul; one that allows the perspective that, no matter how unsettled the times, when you continue to work and create, you continue to grow in your relationships and your art.
In the spot reserved for “Record Label” Clair says, “The very notion is so Planet of the Apes,” which tells us something about this particular recording artist’s aspirations for fame and riches. But how many major label artists have careers where their records keep getting better and better? This is an interesting life we are talking about here. What luck, indeed.