Record Review - 4 July 01 2004

After stints with Sugarland, the Marshall Tucker Band, Matthew Kahler and — ahem — that wise old bluesman John Mayer, multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook's tastes and experiences seem to run the gamut between genres.

There's no deception on Smoke and Mirrors, his second full-length album: With raggedly honest adult contemporary leanings and straightforward lyrics that detail everyman vignettes, Cook's soulful vocals, unadorned keyboards and washes of understated guitar work, recall an American version of Squeeze. The singer/songwriter employs a slew of guests on this outing, including his cohorts keyboardist Brandon Bush and guitarist Bret Hartley.

Opening with the keyboard-tinged shuffle, "Polarity," Cook evokes the best of Paul Carrack's white-boy soul with a touch of Todd Rundgren's mercurial but mellow delivery. His emotive style also permeates "She Forgets," a gentle Alzheimer's ode.

The calm and direct folk-rock style of "Terrible Timing" and the desperate dilemma of "Limited Time" lead to the unfortunate malaise of the middle of the disc. "I Just Can't Take," a valiantly misfired blues rumination, just misses the mark as an overblown and overlong vocal potboiler. Coupled with two other lengthy epics ("Different Directions," "My Fault"), the record bogs down with unnecessary weight. The saving grace of this portion of the chronicle is "Outside," a politely propulsive guitar melt-down.

Cook closes the lid on the set with "The Service," a wonderfully defiant anti-military waltz with the wry cutting wit of Randy Newman.

Clay Cook plays the Dining Room at Smith's Olde Bar Wed., July 7. 9 p.m. Free.