Grasshopper jj cale
Grasshopper jj cale
It’s pretty good still but at times it actually sounds like JJ was actually listening to whoever was on FM radio in california at that point whereas in the past you were struck by how many acts he had influenced .
So on one hand whilst you can hear echoes of tom petty,dire straits and neil young you can also relax and enjoy its easy going diversity and warmth from the sparse “drifters wife” on to the dreamy “mississipi river” and back home via the funky “thing going on” and “does your mama like to reggae” . But the most accomplished tune is probably the lovely “you keep me hanging on” however in several other places on the record the songs just go in one ear and out the other .
They certainly dont stick around long enough to become a problem though .
I’ve always felt that it’s very easy to love J.J.; his unpretentious demeanor and unsophisticated manners, and more importantly his straightforward but catchy songs and his trademark caressing guitar style and hushed vocals all contribute to make him an inspiring character.
That said, if this album’s opening “City Girls” had been my first contact with the mans’ music, I seriously doubt I’d have developed such a positive esteem for him; sounding like a mix of the 80s Rod Stewart and the worst poppy stuff by the Dire Straits, this is one of the cheesiest tunes I’ve heard from him, and in my opinion the worst choice he could have made, or allowed to be make, to open the album.
Grasshopper jj cale
Disclaimer : this page is not written by from the point of view of a J. J. Cale fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective J. J. Cale fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.
For reading convenience, please open the reader comments section in a parallel browser window.
Reviewing J. J. Cale is a bit like reviewing your own nose, for two reasons: (a) wherever you turn, it’s always the same, and (b) however much you stare, it’s still pretty much obscure. J. J. is the mastermind and the ultimate root-source of so many things in today’s (and yesterday’s) music it’s almost frightening, yet few people actually know about him. He’s one of the few figures in the post-Sixties rock industry who’s managed to acquire a mythical stature akin to the great mystical blues heroes of the Thirties and Fourties. His songs have been covered by hundreds of artists, popularized by just about every roots-rocker in the business, yet people still are mainly aware of J. J.’s existence only through Eric Clapton’s covers of ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’. I am, of course, not one of those J. J. adepts who despise Eric’s covers: this “Clapton profanated J. J.” attitude is mostly due to the bitterness at the fact that J. J. never got the public acclaim for those songs while Clapton (and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Lord knows who else) did. But, of course, hearing Cale’s songs performed by other guys doesn’t mean that frees you from the necessity of hearing the man himself .
It’s not that I am all that puzzled by Cale’s lack of commercial success or popularity. If anything, his music is the kind of music that contradicts commercial success and popularity in a big way. Just like Dylan, J. J. doesn’t have a great singing voice (technically speaking, of course), nor do his songs present a particularly original and mind-blowing approach to hook-writing. Unlike Dylan, J. J. doesn’t compensate these “flaws” with complex witty allusion-filled lyrics, nor is he ever willing to present himself, consciously or not, as an angry prophet for his generation or a social criticizer of any sort. Occasionally, you will encounter some social critique in his work, of course, but it’s a critique by a lazy ceiling-gazer lying on his bed, not by a rabble-rousing street revolutionary. With all these characteristics, it’s a wonder J. J. actually found a record company for himself, let alone had some actual radio hits.
Of course, for J. J. Cale the recording process never was all that fussy. As has been hinted at, all of his records sound the same: he has proudly carried his formula through the years, apparently considering (deep down in his heart, as he’s really a humble guy, remember) that there’s no need to improve on perfection. To be fair, though, J. J. Cale’s formula isn’t as limited as, say, that of AC/DC. He is – and always was – pretty comfortable with just about every form of “rootsy” music. There’s some jazz, some country-blues, some Chicago blues, some balladry, some boogie, some funk as well, and of course, you’ll encounter a bunch of poppy hooks every once in a while. Moreover, and this is important, while the actual musical styles that J. J. explored have always remained the same, the sounds that he produces are different; J. J., as incredible as it seems, has never shunned away from technical inventions, and over the years has made use of lots of fuzz boxes and various weird guitar tone modifiers and stuff. His late Eighties/early Nineties records make heavy use of modern technologies, but, unlike so many of his ‘feebler’ contemporaries, J. J. has never completely fallen under the hi-tech curse: all the sounds that he produces are always firmly controlled by the man, never imposed on him by producer hacks. Which makes it all the more interesting.
Cale’s songs never really grip you on first listen. They’re too quiet for that. Sometimes you don’t even hear what he’s singing at all , nor what he’s playing, for that matter (Mark Knopfler sure made great use of that technique later on). The effect sets in on succeeding listens, with his stunning minimalism and, above all, that deeply-felt sincere and utterly humane nature of all the songs. In blues-rock, it is usually not the actual melody that is important – the melodies are all already written – but the approach and the arrangement, and J. J. has no-one to match his uniqueness in that respect. Where the Seventies focused on flashiness, loudness and an almost defiant, forced demand of immediate catharsis, J. J. opposed this with minimalism, restrain, remoteness, and quietness. And if it doesn’t pay back in the direct sense of the word (i.e. financially), it certainly pays back in the artistic sense. I might even go as far as to say that J. J. has NEVER written a SINGLE bad song in his life (apart from maybe the ones he wrote when he was 12, but I ain’t diggin’ that far). Some songs may be a bit more boring than others, but each of them is infested with the J. J. Cale spirit, and that spirit is so damn good it often transforms material that would be second-grade dog-food in the hands of a spiritless performer into near-masterpieces.
Reviewing J. J. becomes a real pain in the neck, though. The records all sound the same and the records are all consisting of on traditionally-based melodies that we all know, so writing about all of J. J.’s twelve studio records in an interesting and involving way is a task worthy of the author of the long-lost Chinese Canon Of Music. I’ll probably have to seriously focus on the emotional aspect of each and every song, but even that might not work. Or maybe I should just review ONE album and give track listings for the rest? But nah, if bore you I must, bore you I will, until you actually make an effort to buy a J. J. Cale album. Oh yeah, you’ll also be seeing A LOT of high ratings on this page, but keep in mind it’s all tremendously relative: Cale is so objectively consistent that differences between albums in the long run boil down to which of the songs affect you on ALL days of the month and which of them affect you only on odd ones.
Listenability : 3/5 . I’d say J. J.’s hooks outweigh his non-hooks, but you could argue with that.
Resonance : 5/5 . Well, if J. J. weren’t overtly resonant, there sure wouldn’t have been no reason to have him around. He’s a singer-songwriter for Chrissake, not Paul McCartney!
Originality : 2/5 . No innovation in melody, but worthy of at least two points for his love of technical gimmicks.
Adequacy : 5/5 . ABSOLUTELY.
Diversity : 2/5 . Well. roots rock is expansive, but after all, all his albums DO sound the same.
Overall : 3.4 = C on the rating scale.
ALBUM REVIEWS NATURALLY
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Has ‘After Midnight’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Best song: AFTER MIDNIGHT or RIVER RUNS DEEP
Track listing: 1) Call Me The Breeze ; 2) Call The Doctor; 3) Don’t Go To Strangers; 4) Woman I Love; 5) Magnolia; 6) Clyde; 7) Crazy Mama; 8) Nowhere To Run; 9) After Midnight ; 10) River Runs Deep ; 11) Bringing It Back; 12) Crying Eyes.
You thought you knew J. J. Cale, but the first sound that greets you as you put on this record is a DRUM MACHINE. No, I’m not drunk. It’s one of those little primitive primal synthesized beats, probably pioneered by whacky Germans like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream a year or so before, but fact is, it’s one thing to have drum machines on an early Seventies Krautrock record and another thing to have them featured on the debut record of one of America’s “rootsiest” ever performer. Mind you, you might actually not notice this little detail, but you should. J. J. was one great innovator in the early days!
Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you that the drum machine rhythm introduces ‘Call Me The Breeze’, the song that was three years later widely popularized by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Skynyrd took Cale’s little ditty – and have I told you yet that it’s very very rarely that a Cale ditty goes over three minutes? – expanded it, added wildass beats and crazy solos and made it rock the ‘ouse down, in a good way. J. J. has none of that; his version is just a mild, although fast, country-blues number. But it already introduces everything that J. J. likes. What does J. J. like? Well, first of all, he likes overdubbing – I’m not sure of whether he plays all/most of the guitars on here (tons of people guest on this and all the other albums; J. J. himself said something to the extent of that he likes to do half the record solo and drag in the big band for the other half), but fact is, there are three distinct guitar parts on here, one acoustic so it seems, the other one basic chuggin’ electric riff, plus a lead guitar splashing licks all over the place. Minimalistic simple isolated licks. Tasty licks, too. And always something that makes the song stand out. For instance, I just love how the lead guitar tone here is so dang louder, sharper, and shriller than all the rest of the song which is plain ‘muddy’ and buried deep down in comparison. This is a typical J. J. trick: make all the instruments go boombidy-boombidy-broombidy-boom in the background and ONE guitar go whangdaddy-whangdaddy-whang in the foreground. Works aural wonders.
Ah well, apart from that song, you probably know ‘After Midnight’, from the famous Clapton cover, the song that actually brought J. J. his career – Eric covered an old uptempo version that he somehow dug out from an early obscure 1965 recording, turned it into a hit and J. J. was consequently let into the studio to produce Naturally . For the album, however, he preferred to totally re-record the song, making it slower, moodier and darker, with a grim piano rhythm carrying the melody and J. J.’s vocals positively menacing as he grumbles out ‘we’re gonna let it all hang out’. (Actually, Eric didn’t waste no time and appropriated that version as well; a live performance of the ‘grim variant’ can be found on Rainbow Concert ). I suppose that you could also know ‘Crazy Mama’, which somehow managed to become the first actual hit for J. J., and again, it’s mainly distinguishable by the use of said trick: all the ‘struments go boombidy-boombidy and only the lead guitar goes wildly wah-wah’ing in the foreground. Funny, if not exactly the perfect choice for a hit single, I’d say.
The rest of the songs, imagine that, are pretty rewarding as well. ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’ introduces the “weary-of-the-world” musical philosophy, the old tired yet thoroughly precise beat with minimalistic bluesy guitar and a “the entire universe rests within me and my intimacy” feel. If you’re familiar with Dire Straits’ ‘Six Blade Knife’, you know what I’m talking about. This all perfectly compensated by more upbeat tracks like ‘Woman I Love’, with a clever use of brass and more of those semi-catchy vocal hooks. ‘River Runs Deep’, then, is simply the song that Knopfler ripped ‘Six Blade Knife’ off, and if the way Cale intones ‘and the river runs deep and the water is cold as ice’ doesn’t put all those proverbial creeps on your proverbial back, well, you’re incompatible with J. J. Not that it’s a problem – J. J. is not the easiest guy on earth to get compatible with.
What else is there to say? Oh, for some diversity! There you go – ‘Clyde’ is a hilarious pure-country send-up with beautiful lyrics and a solid fiddle part, ‘Magnolia’ is a sleepy ballad that you can sleep to if you want to (it’s pretty short though, so don’t say I didn’t warn ya), and, uh, well, some other songs too, but that’s about all I can say. I’m tempted to describe this stuff as “formative” and “not thoroughly disclosing the artist’s personality” but I’m really afraid that I’ll be giving you some bull because while I do miss some of the facets that would appear later on (particularly in the lyrics’ department, I think), that doesn’t mean Naturally isn’t a serious artistic statement by a guy who really knew what he was doing. Plus, THREE undisputed classics on here. so whatever. And, of course, a really cool raccoon guy on the front cover, although I have absolutely NO idea what he is supposed to mean. But please don’t tell me, I like it better that way, and besides, a debut album from somebody like J. J. Cale gotta have that mystical aura around it somehow.
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Has ‘Lies’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Track listing: 1) Lies ; 2) Everything Will Be Alright; 3) I’ll Kiss The World Goodbye; 4) Changes ; 5) Right Down Here; 6) If You’re Ever In Oklahoma; 7) Ridin’ Home; 8) Going Down; 9) Soulin’; 10) Playing In The Street; 11) Mo Jo; 12) Louisiana Women.
I kinda think that those who bought J. J.’s debut in 1971 never really suspected that his second album could have been a wee bit different. And were they right? Why, they certainly were! This album sounds just like its predecessor, right? And you thought J. J. Cale teamed for the Velvet Underground! HAH!
Actually, my humble opinion is that it sounds a little worse. Maybe, what, a bit too laid-back for me? I guess it just lacks a strong punchy rocker like ‘Call Me The Breeze’. The punchiest song is the album opener, the single ‘Lies’ which I’d guess is the only song that anybody knows from this album. But it’s slower than ‘Call Me The Breeze’, although the addition of an organ background is pretty welcome. It kinda gives the sound a more ‘big-band’ feel (what with the brass section and the backing vocals as well) than before, although if hard pressed to define the one truly endearing moment about the song, I’d say J. J.’s wheezy accent (‘you sed you luv’ mi’). It’s here, too, that he develops this habit of singing into his microphone as if he were swallowing it, with every little breath and every little sniff and every little puff captured so perfectly you’d swear Cale’s breathing actually overshadows the instruments.
The other songs reveal their charm over time as well, but I remember how the All-Music Guide put it about this album, saying something like ‘you might find yourself waiting for a pay-off that never arrives’. I look at the tracklisting right now and I say, hey, J. J. Cale is no Nick Drake after all, I have the right to expect some KICK from this guy. And the kick never comes! Ballads, slow blues, mild country-rock. where’s the kick, really ? Really ?
So one point off for no kick, but let’s just pretend J. J. was a little lacking in the ability to distribute his talent evenly at the time. On the other hand, there are some good songs here, too. The lyrics aren’t anything special again, in fact, they might be even somewhat more generic than last time around, culminating in Cale’s cover of Don Nix’s ‘Going Down’ – three minutes of little else but singing ‘I’m going down’! The opening bassline is pretty evil though, almost artsy in its menace, you could say. And I’d guess J. J.’s take on ‘I Got My Mojo Working’ is just a bit too routine for the man, I like the beat and all and J. J.’s fast quiet country licks, but the song sounds as if it could have been recorded by Peter Green in his earliest Fleetwood Mac days, which is, way too copy-catting in its essence. So maybe J. J. was a bit low in the creative department at the time.
Actually, the best songs on here are the ballads. The jazzy piano-based ‘Everything Will Be Alright’, for instance, with its exceedingly clever false ending in the middle (a false ending that carries the song over three minutes, yahoo!), and a pretty beautiful piano solo in the middle. Even better is ‘Changes’, with a very odd style of folksy acoustic picking that’s probably authentic J. J. – the man himself used to confess that in his early days he wanted to play like his blues and rock’n’roll idols, but never could figure out the way they did play, so he invented his own style accidentally, and this is it. Of course, the biggest hook of the song is the way J. J. intones ‘how can you put me through these changes?’, with all the aeon-long human sorrow nestled within this intonation.
Actually, I could make a feeble hypothesis that Really is a little too heavy on pessimistic/romantic moments – I can see, for instance, how some diehard J. J. fans could treasure this rather unremarkable record inserted in between two giants like Naturally and Okie , because it’s so humbler and so much more personal than these two, provided that’s actually possible. ‘Changes’, for instance, leads directly into ‘Right Down Here’, a song which transmits the emotions of a poor old boozer dependent on a woman’s will so perfectly you’re almost ready to identify the protagonist with J. J. himself, and both with your own poor self. On the other hand, a song like ‘Soulin’ has all the devilish lusty power of a hot blues epic, but it also features a weirdly processed ‘poisonous’ guitar solo, apparently more of that J. J.’s devilous guitar-tampering, so you’ll have something to remember it by.
Ah well, anyway, mathematically speaking, I should probably have given the record a 7, but the extra good songs like ‘Lies’ and ‘Changes’ sure pull it up, so don’t let the relative lack of well-known tunes really let you down. If you’re after the well-known tunes, you might as well get yourself a compilation, you know, probably the best way to deal with J. J. for somebody who’s financially tempted. Oh yeah, did I ever mention to you that J. J. is one of the worst ‘sequencers’ in the history of mankind? Not only is there absolutely nothing conceptually unifying the songs on any of his albums, but he just doesn’t seem to care about the order of their placing or whatever else. I could shuffle ’em up and pour ’em down, from all the twelve records that is, and still come up with twelve winners. Which is probably marvelous in the way of talent, but deadly perilous in the way of reviewing. NNNOOOO! SO MANY MORE RECORDS TO GO!
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
Has ‘I Got The Same Old Blues’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Best song: ANYWAY THE WIND BLOWS
Track listing: 1) Crying; 2) I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me); 3) Starbound; 4) Rock And Roll Records ; 5) The Old Man And Me ; 6) Everlovin’ Woman; 7) Cajun Moon ; 8) I’d Like To Love You Baby; 9) Anyway The Wind Blows ; 10) Precious Memories; 11) Okie; 12) I Got The Same Old Blues .
Oh well, at least THIS is a great record. Arguably his very very very best one. Make this one your very first purchase, actually. It is not a hit package by itself, but it has some of the man’s most famous material, and just about every single song is notable. It’s diverse to the point of incorporating nearly every style J. J. has ever played in, and it also features great lyrical maturity. In fact, let’s just go over it song by song.
‘Crying’ – a bluesy ballad with a tricky time signature, catchy verses and a tired old guitar line in the background. A great example of the “Cale overdub”, with the two guitar parts and the organ part meshing in perfectly. But not one of the highlights anyway.
‘I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)’: a country-rock cover (J. J. always included one or two covers, by the way, but of course, the originals were usually even more unknown than J. J.’s originals), with a super-catchy vocal melody and a solid slide guitar solo. “There ain’t no chain strong enough to hold me, ain’t no breeze big enough to slow me, never have seen a river that’s too wide, there ain’t no jail tight enough to lock me. “. I love parallelism in lyrics, don’t you?
‘Starbound’ – the experimental piece of the album, with J. J. actually singing about travel through space, whether it be imaginary or real! Plus a phasing effect on the vocals to emphasize the otherworldliness of the experience. Not particularly memorable, but isn’t it fun to hear a rootsy dude like J. J. sing ‘a floating star is what we are, suspended in space’?
‘Rock And Roll Records’ – terrific song. How does J. J. get that guitar tone? Just listen to that sound. It doesn’t sound acoustic, it doesn’t really sound electric, and a primitive drum machine on top of that. And that breathy vocal tone. And, of course, the lyrics: “I make rock and roll records, I sell ’em for a dime, I make my livin’ and feed my children, all for your good times”. Was this just a funny variation on the traditional ‘poor man’s life’ lyrical subject, or was that a sneering comment on the general character of the rock’n’roll industry of the times? Judging by J. J.’s own character, I’d certainly suggest the latter.
‘The Old Man And Me’ is perhaps the closest J. J. ever came to open Taoism in his creativity. Again, the song never works unless taken in complex: the basic ‘muddy’ soundin’ rhythm track, the very very very quiet, but ESSENTIAL heavenly slide guitar feebly ringing in the speakers, J. J.’s shady silky vocals and the static naturalist lyrics – ‘the old man and me, we got a good thing going, he gets his fish and I sit all day’. Few people have ever been able to capture nature’s serenity and the eternal regularity of the world’s order in such a simple way. maybe Brian Eno in ‘Spider And I’, but even ‘Spider And I’ has an atmosphere that’s WAY too supernatural-looking, whereas ‘The Old Man And Me’ just kinda sits there and. oh well. It’s great.
‘Everlovin’ Woman’ is just a funny (insanely catchy, too) throwaway. J. J. overabuses his accent on the track (I mean, what the heck, he doesn’t, like, pronounce HALF the sounds that are present in the lyrics sheet! Is this natural for Okies?), but that comes across as funny and endearing, and while the only aim of the song seems to have been making the listener chant ‘I’m talkin’ bout, I’m talkin’ bout, I’m talkin’ in rhyme, I’m talkin’ ’bout this everlovin’ woman of mine’ in his sleep, that aim is achieved as easy as pronouncing the name of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. (And that’s no lie).
‘Cajun Moon’, I think for the first time on the record, suddenly has J. J. rejecting the breathy way of singing – all of a sudden, he thrusts the mike a few inches away from his jaws and sounds colder and harsher than before, but that only fits the chilly near-robotic nature of the song, with sharp shrill guitar parts and a concentrated hard-hitting beat. Is that a Synclavier bass in the background or what?
‘I’d Like To Love You Baby’ is a slight throwaway, I think, but it’s followed by Cale’s signature tune, the immortal ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’, a triumph, a total triumph of minimalism and concentration. I’d say the basic inspiration here was ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’: the song races away at the same fast garage-like tempo, has next to no chorus (that ‘easy come easy go’ stuff appears WAY too rarely) and similar ‘rush-style’ lyrics. You could argue that essentially the lyrics are, well, about dancing, but how do you get away with brilliant lines like: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, you better change your ways or you won’t get to Heaven, eight, nine, ten, gonna stop at eleven, eleven just lays there and rhymes with seven”? Wonderful song, NEVER has been done better by anybody because never managed to sing it in the same nonchalant, almost ‘scared’ way as J. J. does on here.
‘Precious Memories’ continues with a generic, if somewhat soothing, country ballad; the title track is a promising instrumental where Cale gets to display his true prowess on the acoustic; and then, of course, there’s ‘I Got The Same Old Blues’ which you also might know from the Lynyrd Skynyrd version or even from the Captain Beefheart (sic!) version. Or whatever. It’s quite poignant and one of those all-time blues-rock classics that don’t seem to achieve much but where everything seems to flow so well together they can’t seem to fall out of your head. Shit, I need to throw out those extra ‘seem’.
Well, that was the only way to prove the greatness of the record – unless you do it on a song-by-song basis, there’s no way you can get away with a generalization. If you get away with generalizations, you get the brief summary for every AMG review of every J. J. album: “Well, er, uhm, it’s more J. J. Cale this time, some good songs, some filler, duh, hardcore fans buy, non-hardcore fans don’t”. Ha! Now if only AMG had bothered describing the actual songs. Ha! Maybe they would have earned more respect from the Web Reviewing Community.
On the other hand, maybe their pages just would take forever to download instead of forever minus one minute. So forget I ever suggested that.
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Has ‘Cocaine’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Best song: TRAVELIN’ LIGHT
Track listing: 1) Hey Baby; 2) Travelin’ Light ; 3) You Got Something; 4) Ride Me High ; 5) Hold On; 6) Cocaine ; 7) I’m A Gypsy Man ; 8) The Woman That Got Away; 9) Super Blue; 10) Let Me Do It To You; 11) Cherry; 12) You Got Me On So Bad.
Well this sure seems like a serious record as the songs are getting dang longer! ‘You Got Something’ runs on for FOUR minutes, goshdarnit! And this, mind you, at a time when the punk conscience was emerging on the scene! And only ONE song runs on less than two minutes! And this, mind you, at a time when the prog dinosaur was being exterminated!
Well then again, J. J. Cale never really travelled on with the times, not to mention that he really didn’t give a damn about prog or punk either. Let’s pretend that neither do we and just concentrate on the masterpiece called ‘Travelin’ Light’. Maybe the BEST song that J. J. Cale ever penned in his life, and I ain’t kiddin’ yer! Or at least, one of the most underrated. I actually first heard it as covered by Clapton on the Reptile album, and Eric (as usual) made a damn good job with it, in fact, made it a major highlight of that album, but that doesn’t mean it beats the original. Here, J. J. develops something like an almost funky sound, with jerky ringing guitar lines carrying the melody, and gives this little romantic ‘fast ballad’ a truly marvelous arrangement. With the guitars paranoidally echoing in and out of your speakers, the gloomy chimes in the background, and J. J.’s pensive whispered vocals, I really can’t find flaw with the song. Of course, it’s the sad mystical atmosphere that rules the most – while the lyrics are almost defiantly optimistic and radiant (‘we can go to paradise, maybe once maybe twice’), the melody is in a minor key, and while the song as a whole kicks ass, it seems to kick it inside you rather than throw you out of the chair, if you get the message.
Of course, you probably never heard that song, but you certainly can’t lie me in the face that you’ve never heard ‘Cocaine’. Not the original, of course, the Clapton cover, I mean (Eric sure gorged himself on this album, eh?). The Clapton cover is good; the original ain’t no slouch either, as it was Cale, after all, who invented that notorious five-note riff, not Eric. You’ll actually be surprised upon hearing the original about how Clapton copied the basic pattern of the song note-for-note (well, he did that pretty much with every J. J. Cale song) – the only thing that differs significantly is, of course, the guitar solo, minimalistic and concise for Cale, sprawling and complex for Eric. I suppose it’s also the heaviest song in J. J.’s repertoire. not that it really matters.
Then again, ‘I’m A Gypsy Man’ is pretty heavy too – and pretty weird, as it incorporates two different time signatures, a funky one and a country one. You gotta dig those gruff distorted riffs that make up the meat of the song, and the way the gruff distorted riffs actually adjust themselves to the time signature change. You gotta dig the guitar tone as well, as J. J. goes fiddling around with his fuzzbox once again. However, the sonic effects on ‘Ride Me High’ are even spookier, with all kinds of dirty feedback and talkboxes and what-not, and J. J. actually singing about DIRTY SEX for once. Which is only natural – if we’re playing in a funky way, let’s sing in a funky way as well! The song rules to no end.
So I guess we could call this J. J.’s funk album, could we? He would for the most part abandon this arranging/songwriting brand on the next album, so that would be kinda safe. Then again, there’s plenty of non-funk material on here. ‘Hey Baby’, for instance, opens the album on a fairly mild and innocent note, just a pleasant blues ballad with brass arrangements. There’s also plenty of slide guitar on the album, meaning J. J. hasn’t at all betrayed his country roots: ‘Hey Baby’ itself mutates into country-rock halfway through, and ‘Super Blue’ is a slide lover’s paradise. Plus some pure unadulterated blues in ‘You Got Me On So Bad’ and a couple other songs, so those who do not appreciate of the Master’s use of modern technology can find consolation here.
A particularly keen-eyed gentleman, upon listening to ‘Let Me Do It To You’, would certainly have to exclaim: ‘Why, that’s where Mark Knopfler got his sound from!’ Because the ‘jumping’ descending riff that the song is based upon sounds exactly like the kind of ‘jumping’ riffs Mark used for songs like ‘Setting Me Up’ and ‘Southbound Again’ two years later. What a bummer, eh? Not that I’m knocking Mark, of course, I’m just pointing out some roots. We have to know our roots you know. Otherwise we’ll just get UPROOTED all the time!
And that’s about all I’ll say about the songs – I mean, I could go on about how all the other unnamed songs rule in their own special ways, and how no two songs on the album actually sound the same (amazing feat considering that nothing goes beyond ‘roots-rock’), and how all the album actually sounds the same (amazing feat considering that no two songs on it actually sound the same), and how it still seems pretty disjointed in terms of musical unity (amazing feat considering how all the album actually sounds the same), but why should I? I dunno if you can find ‘Travelin’ Light’ on any J. J. compilation, but if you can’t, just dive in straight for this record. One friggin’ HELL of a song. And finally , a really good and up-to-date album title. and cover.
Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Has ‘Sensitive Kind’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Best song: FATE OF A FOOL or I’LL MAKE LOVE TO YOU
Track listing: 1) Thirteen Days; 2) Boilin’ Pot; 3) I’ll Make Love To You ; 4) Don’t Cry Sister; 5) Too Much For Me; 6) Sensitive Kind; 7) Friday ; 8) Lou-easy-ann; 9) Let’s Go To Tahiti; 10) Katy Kool Lady; 11) Fate Of A Fool ; 12) Mona.
The longest break from recording so far in the end results in this album, which, despite the short “unpretentious” title, actually has J. J. trying something significantly new! The songs are getting even longer – ‘Sensitive Kind’ runs for FIVE MINUTES! Wow! And NOT A SINGLE song is shorter than two! And this at a time when Yes were sabotaging their reputation with Tormato ! Imagine that!
Speaking of ‘Sensitive Kind’, for some reason it turns out to be one of J. J.’s most well-known songs, but it’s thoroughly uncharacteristic of his general sound. A lenghty orchestrated ballad with almost Santanaesque acoustic guitar carrying us through the melody, I betcha anything many diehard J. J. Cale fans would want to dismiss it as “schlocky”. Fortunately, the strings really add to the sound, with solid ‘cello riffs’ instead of the usual Hollywoodish mishmash, and even the “jam” that the song evolves into for the last two and a half minutes is highly enjoyable. But it’s one of the really really few cases that J. J. bothered about adding strings to his songs, and you can see why; the strings almost act like acid upon his personality, taking out the intimacy and turning this into soft formulaic radio fodder. Well, to a certain extent, I mean, it’s still J. J., no doubt about it.
But relax, there’s enough prime J. J. material on here even without ‘Sensitive Kind’. Maybe just a wee bit more filler than usual, though, but that’s overtly subjective, or maybe some of the less obvious gems have been overshadowed by some of the more obvious gems, I don’t know. I’ll just go over the more attractive numbers this time. ‘Thirteen Days’, for instance – a sarcastic reflection on life on the road and what it takes (‘We’ve got enough dope to keep us all high/We’ve got two girls dancing to pick up the crowd/Sound men to mix us, make us sound loud/Sometimes we make money, sometimes we don’t know/Thirteen days with life to go’). The female backing vocals sound a bit out of place, unless they’re supposed to represent the roadies (!), but the song’s relaxed shuffle and J. J.’s philosophic vocal delivery, so simple and unadorned, really makes this work. Odd choice of the cover, too – Boatman & Tillison’s ‘Let’s Go To Tahiti’, as if some of you here could associate J. J. with Tahiti. The chorus is so dumb, yet so attractive at the same time, that. ah well.
Frig it, I’m not gonna waste any time on that, so let’s just take the three best songs and see what we can make out of them. The four-minute boogie piece ‘Friday’ is pretty creepy in a certain sense. Other people use the ‘friday evening/saturday evening’ cliche in order to make a happy song about having fun and ripping it up; J. J. uses it in order to make a dark, pessimistic song about how the guy actually drags and drags on in his endless misery for five days, only wishing and praying for the working week to finally be over. “Thursday, you know I feel better, I can see the end in sight/Think I’ll write myself a letter, help myself through the night” and so on. The song alone, I guess, would have been sufficient to make people understand why so many pray to J. J. as their personal God.
Another particular gem, of course, is ‘I’ll Make Love To You’, the ‘hard rocker’ of the album. Curiously, it had already been covered by Clapton a year before J. J. released it on this album; you can find Eric’s version on Backless , and surprise surprise, I could say Clapton actually ‘outcales’ Cale on this number, creating an atmosphere somewhat darker and denser than J. J. on here. This version is rather rough and tough, with sharp rude vocals from J. J. and a great fuzzy (almost punkish) solo in the outro over which he overdubs another, ‘cleaner’ solo. The bluesy riff of the song is unbeatable, and the lyrics are at the same time typical blues stuff (dumb macho shit) and typical J. J. Cale personality (‘I can’t count from one to ten, and I don’t know the shape I’m in’ – J. J.! J. J.!).
And the hidden gem: ‘Fate Of A Fool’. Very hard to discuss this song – musically, I could mention that the mix of the acoustic rhythm and the minimalistic wah-wah licks works aural wonders, but so do many other songs in J. J.’s catalog. Lyrically, the song is dedicated to the life and work of your average barroom guitar player, but so are even more of those songs. Ah well, I just suppose that the chorus – “that’s the fate of a fool, and a guitar man” – just gives us one of those marvelous simple-as-the-wind lines that stick in your head forever, and manages to place the radical emphasis on THIS line so subtly that the chorus never really becomes repetitive. Plenty of food for thought as well.
In all, 5 just seems somewhat more ambitious than before – longer songs, I’d say more complex arrangements in general, you know, it’s almost as if J. J. was on the brink of actually breaking away from the formula and veering into a more adventurous (technically speaking) world. But as it turned out, he never really crossed the line, and in innovation terms, the next two albums were almost a step back; fortunately, we never really need to speak of J. J. in innovation terms, apart from the minor details like early drum machines and cool fuzz boxes and petty stuff like that.
Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Has. eh. ‘Mama Don’t’ on it or something, ah shucks, guess it just AIN’T distinguishable!
Best song: CARRY ON
Track listing: 1) Carry On ; 2) Deep Dark Dungeon; 3) Wish I Had Not Sa >Pack My Jack ; 5) If You Leave Her; 6) Mama Don’t ; 7) Runaround; 8) What Do You Expect; 9) Love Has Been Gone ; 10) Cloudy Day.
The first J. J. Cale album to go down the shitter! Or at least, heading slightly towards that direction. Of course, it’s not what you think: it’s not at all a sellout or a betrayal of values, on the contrary, the album is just a bit TOO conservative, almost like a defiant I-give-you-this backlash against the rapidly evolving music scene of the time. I mean, heck, J. J. sounds a hundred times more anachronistic on here than on any of the previous albums. But this newly-found minimalism doesn’t exactly work. First of all, why only ten songs? Just because two of them go over five minutes is no reason to deprive us of the sacred number 12 or 14. Second, where’s the diversity? This is a straightahead straightaway BLUES album for what it’s worth, with a straightahead blues backing band, straightahead blues lyrics and pretty conventional guitar and vocals throughout.
On a couple of tracks, J. J.’s sensibilities for writing great hooks are still alive. The album opener, ‘Carry On’, in particular is a great song, slightly reminding of the atmosphere of ‘Travelin’ Light’ (same tempo but a steady acoustic rhythm replacing the tricky funky overdubs of ‘Travelin’ Light’), with uplifting optimistic lyrics delivered in the usual heart-warming manner. A few synthesized chimes placed exactly at those spots where they affect your emotional headquarters the most – check ’em out, almost inaudible in their subtlety, but so appropriate. Beautiful song. The country-popper ‘Love Has Been Gone’, while nowhere near as epic as ‘Carry On’, is also pretty well-crafted and will serve as that one perfect soundtrack to when you ever wanna start the divorce process with your once-beloved, particularly if you don’t want to hurt her feelings THAT much. ‘How does it feel? – Not too good. It ain’t real, but it’s understood. that our love has been gone, gone so long there’s nothing new’. Another track that deeply affects me in the musical department is ‘What Do You Expect’, with a fantastic funky rhythm and an overdriven rhythm section. Sometimes it’s just fun to have a kick-ass number like that on your record even if you know it ain’t exactly resulting from a particular breakthrough in your songwriting.
But the rest of the album is pretty disappointing. No, it sounds all right, but much too often, on songs like ‘Runaround’ or ‘Pack My Jack’, it just sounds like your average. okay, your average professional blues band doing your average professional blues. When these songs were pushed to the border of the record, becoming pleasant ear-calming filler, they were all right; now they somehow become the center of attention, and that ain’t too good. I just miss J. J.’s weird guitar tones and I miss his ever-increasing, but now concealed lyrical astuteness. And there’s no way he should have allowed a song like ‘Pack My Jack’ to go on for five bleedin’ minutes. Is it a joke or what? The very salt of J. J. playing the blues had always been its briefness – capture a tiny piece of a mood, throw it at the listener and quickly run to another angle of the room before the listener has a chance to throw it back on you. Here, you have all the time to call J. J. all the names he is probably deserving for this piece of ultra-polished boredom. And what the HELL is J. J. trying to tell us with ‘Deep Dark Dungeon’? Does he hint at the fact that all those people he mentions as criminals do not deserve being put in the dungeon ‘where the sun don’t never shine’? Tell me that!
Likewise, I’m not too sure what to make of the instrumental ‘Cloudy Day’, which closes the album on another five-minute long note. A blues instrumental. A good blues instrumental. There is some beauty in the guitar, there’s some beauty in the saxes which come in midway through. There’s meditation potential. But there’s also some stepping in other persons’ shoes, I’d say; if I want an instrumental like this, I’ll certainly pick up a Santana record. Something like that. I simply do NOT want to hear a lengthy sax improvisation on a J. J. Cale album, unless it manages to blow me off my chair by any magical chance. Not to mention that he coul have squeezed TWO of his wonderful rockers in its place, gngngngn.
That said, I really like ‘Mama Don’t’. I don’t know what recording J. J. got that traditional R’n’B snippet from, but it’s wonderful – at every mention of ‘mama don’t allow no’ [insert a name of instrument here] ‘playing in here’, that exact instrument steps in and the band really has a good time. If it ain’t particularly special, it’s at least funny and really amusing. This and the other really good songs and the fact that there’s nothing offensive on here still allows me to give this a 7. well, come to think, I have yet to hear a truly offensive J. J. song, which means all of his albums are getting at least a 10. Ooh, I like that. That’s consistency for you. Say, if I were to reward bands for consistency, would that mean I had to award Kiss with extra points just for being consistently shitty for thirty years of their career? Ah well, never mind. Just a thought.
Year Of Release: 1982
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Has ‘City Girls’ on it, so it’s distinguishable!
Best song: A THING GOING ON
Track listing: 1) City Girls ; 2) Devil In Disguise ; 3) One Step Ahead Of The Blues; 4) You Keep Me Hangin’ On; 5) Downtown L. A.; 6) Can’t Live Here; 7) Grasshopper; 8) Drifters Wife ; 9) Don’t Wait; 10) A Thing Going On ; 11) Nobody But You; 12) Mississippi River; 13) Does Your Mama Like To Reggae; 14) Dr Jive.
Score! Another album in only one year, and how dang much it actually improves on its predecessor. J. J. Cale proves his genius again! By the way, did you know that J. J. is usually deciphered as “Jean-Jacques”? Oh, you did? But here’s the kicker: J. J. Cale’s real name is not Jean-Jacques, as I just found out, so no reason to suppose a French origin. His real name, get this, is JOHN . He was dubbed J. J. by an early record company or music club managers, don’t remember which, to distinguish him from the other John Cale. You know, the one who prevented the Velvet Underground from becoming a good band for two years. (Now you’re not supposed to take this statement seriously, you probably know that, do you? Take it HALF-seriously, so there!).
Anyway, Grasshopper kicks butt. FOURTEEN songs on here, most of them different from each other. Oh, granted, it’s not perfect. The two instrumentals that bookmark the end of each side are kinda strange. It’s like. like a sweet little country-rock instrumental where the keyboard player totally goes mad; the title track even has a dissonant keyboard solo, for God’s sake. Good thing they’re really short, or I wouldn’t know what to think. Man, whenever J. J. got into experimental mode, he had some really strange ideas.
That doesn’t prevent the songs from being swell. No bluesy supersessions this time around – Shades may have boasted a legion of guest guitarists, but all they did was wank away in the most predictable traditional fashion. Not so on here. The album is being introduced with ‘City Girls’, perhaps the closest J. J. ever came to having a real pop hit. It’s also country at the essence, of course, but what do you make of those sweet ‘POM-pom, POM-pom’ keyboard rhythms that crop up from time to time? Aren’t they, er, ‘selloutish’ in nature? Funny. That’s the thing I love the most about the song, though. It’s supposed to be simple and friendly and unassuming, a very sunny song as opposed to J. J.’s frequent gloominess, and it works WONDERS.
Ah well. There’s more. There’s the fastest rocker J. J. ever did, the two-minute rock’n’roll celebration ‘Devil In Disguise’ (no, NOTHING to do with the equally fun, but radically different Presley song). Hearing the rhythm guitars chug at light speed in both speakers made me as happy in a matter of moments as I haven’t been since last hearing ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’. Uh, maybe the comparison isn’t exactly cozy, but at least I can now find an excuse for rhyming ‘Rosie’ and ‘cozy’. And if you want more rockers, you can take ‘Nobody But You’, not a great song by itself but the one that allows us to have some funk on this record. After all, funk is an essential component of the J. J. sound, right? We gotta have some of those jerky rhythms around.
There’s even a song called ‘Does Your Mama Like To Reggae’ on here! J. J. had never flirted with reggae before, and even this one tune isn’t essentially a reggae number, at least, you gotta have a really strong musical ear to hear the reggae beat behind the unsyncopated piano lines and the bluesy guitar soloing. But it’s gruff, mean and sexy, and has all the grit required from a gritty number of J. J.’s. (Boy, that was really misinformed and primitive of me. But take pity on a reviewer who’s bothered to write something about a song called ‘Does Your Mama Like To Reggae’).
Two songs in particular, I think, stand out here. ‘Drifters Wife’ is a shameless attempt to put himself into Woody Guthrie/early Bob Dylan shoes, a pure acoustic folksy number that goes off like a bomb: in fact, it makes me wonder why J. J. never really tried it out seriously to become a star in Greenwich Village. His Okie accent is a little bit overexaggerated here as well, but sounds thoroughly authentic nevertheless. However, a folksy send-up is a folksy send-up in any case; but a song like ‘A Thing Going On’ had to be really written, and it was written flawlessly. What the song exactly is about is hard to tell, but whatever the lyrics might mean the overall mood of the song is what I’d call “micro-apocalyptic”, with one of the saddest ascending guitar riffs imaginable carrying the melody and J. J. singing the ‘look here. we got a thing. going on. ‘ in his most paranoid tone. I seriously get the shivers down my back when hearing that song, almost afraid of it. J. J. did write sad and gloomy songs before, but it’s the first time he’s actually put himself into this drive, and it’s scary.
But shake up your ass, come to your senses, don’t forget there’s also the gentle stuff like the ballad ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, or catchy energetic blues-rock like ‘Can’t Live Here’ and ‘One Step Ahead Of The Blues’, or the toe-tappin’ country-popper ‘Mississippi River’, and you’ll just get why this gets an easy 9 from me. Man, the saddest thing here is that this album obviously took J. J., like, maybe a week to write and record in total, maybe less, and it’s STILL great. It’s not that HARD to write a great song, people – why don’t you somehow put that idea into the hands of whoever writes material for the Backstreet Boys? Maybe the world would have become a better place.
Year Of Release: 1983
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Back to tonomonous rockers on here, although retaining some poppy elements as well.
Best song: MONEY TALKS
Track listing: 1) Money Talks ; 2) Losers ; 3) Hard Times; 4) Reality; 5) Takin’ Care Of Business; 6) People Lie; 7) Unemployment; 8) Trouble In The City; 9) Teardrops In My Tequila; 10) Livin’ Here Too.
Mmm, back to “definitely so-so”. For some reason, J. J. really got on a roll in those early Eighties – three albums in three years, when he’d only released five in the entire previous decade. And while Grasshopper was a definite triumph for him, the two records it was sandwiched in between are kinda fillerish. As I already said, Shades was spoiled by too many unimaginative generic blues tunes; this one, named in such a defiantly unpretentious way, is spoiled by overemphasizing only one of Cale’s aspects, that of the grim barroom rocker with an ominous edge.
You might have heard the opening number, which was a justified hit and still remains one of J. J.’s best known songs, ‘Money Talks’. It’s a true classic, built upon a simple, thoroughly humble three-or-four-notes guitar line and lyrics that may seem totally shallow but whose absolute charm lies in realizing that’s the way life is meant to be, actually. It’s not radically different from anything J. J. did before, except that the social context is really sharpened in this particular occasion and one of the verses is done by somebody who’s obviously not J. J. because it’s a female voice. Is this Christina Lakeland, Cale’s continuous songwriting partner? Could be, I’m not sure, my credits are pretty scant.
But there’s not much distinction to the record apart from that tune. I still retain enough interest for the second number, because ‘Losers’ takes the exact same instrumentation of ‘Money Talks’ and employs it on a pop-rocker this time, not unlike ‘City Girls’ as far as mood and atmosphere goes, except that the lyrics are pretty morose this time. But from then on, about every single one of the eight remaining numbers (and this is a pretty short record even by J. J.’s own standards) can fit into the ‘Money Talks’ or the ‘City Girls’ category, and that’s hardly good news – just right after Grasshopper jumped out of the dark bushes and startled us with its variegation and diversity, along comes this wretched eightth album and spooks away all the fun with its purism.
Just looky here. ‘Hard Times’: basically ‘Money Talks Vol. 2’, only without the memorable minimalistic guitar line to render the song memorable, and the song’s four minutes are as much justified as the nine minutes of ‘Revolution # 9’. ‘Reality’: one of the “better filler” tunes, with a very cute trebly guitar riff introducing the song, but as the vocals come on, it turns out that the song is just ‘Losers Vol. 2’, although this time Cale is more aggressive. I have to give ‘im that, the rockin’ band he assembled for the sessions really knows how to cut it loose – there’s enough energy on this and the other tracks to let you groove along to everything, but only as much as it requires for J. J. Cale to go on being J. J. and not becoming, uh, I dunno, Ted Nugent for instance. ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’: a half-acoustic, half-electric total throwaway. ‘People Lie’: this one’s groovy! But, uh, it sounds just like ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’. I just like the way Cale intones ‘people lie, people lie’ in the chorus. See, it’s pretty impossible to rate albums like these through any rational criteria. What do I care? For all I know, you might like ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’ and hate ‘People Lie’! But why do I bother? For all I know, you might STILL be thinking J. J. Cale was the one who played that freaky revolutionary violin on ‘Venus In Furs’! People are cruel.
‘Unemployment’ is overlong as well, although I like the instrumentation – one slow power-chord based guitar riff in the background, one fast bluesy roll in the foreground, but it’s hardly enough to make the song deserve particular attention. ‘Trouble In The City’ is ‘Losers Vol. 3’; ‘Teardrops In My Tequila’ is just about the only song to step away from the formula by being more countryesque than rockish, with the obligatory slide guitar and lots of Mexican kitchen references; and ‘Livin’ Here Too’ is a pretty boring way to end an album, if you ask me.
So, the final word is that this is probably the first J. J. album to actually end up lower than the waterline, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was also J. J.’s last in a seriously big period of time – he laid off for six years after that, effectively missing just about all of the Eighties’ production atrocities. I could make a hypothesis that he just turned around, thought “what the hell have I done, overdoing my schedule in that cruelly excessive way?” and imposed that long break on himself, but this would be a hypothesis that would basically just please me but wouldn’t be supported with any documental evidence. Maybe he just didn’t feel like making music for some reason, and that’s all. Considering that J. J. has always been a simple guy, not bothering too much with general concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘innovation’, ‘general message’, ‘musical philosophy’, etc., the second solution looks closer to the truth. In any case, whatever, the fact remains the fact: this just is not a very good album. Make this either your first J. J. purchase (because if you’re unfamiliar with his style, it can convert you anyway), or the last.
Year Of Release: 1990
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
The six years could have been passed in a more productive way, don’t you think?
Best song: SHANGHAID
Track listing: 1) Shanghaid; 2) Hold On Baby; 3) No Time; 4) Lady Luck; 5) Disadvantage; 6) Lean On Me; 7) End Of The Line; 8) New Orleans; 9) Tijuana; 10) That Kind Of Thing; 11) Who’s Talking; 12) Change Your Mind; 13) Humdinger; 14) River Boat Song.
Uhm, well. You see, it was hard enough to review J. J.’s early material – what is there to say about his late material, then? Let me put it this way: basically, it would be ridiculous accusing Mr Cale of not wanting to ‘progress’ or ‘catch up’ or ‘explore’ new musical directions. Ever since he appeared on the music scene, it was pretty much obvious Mr Cale was all about a delicate laid-back rootsy style brimming with honesty and naturality – I mean, Naturally , the title of his debut, could easily be applied to every other album of his career. In other words, it’s pretty obvious that when you’re buying a new J. J. Cale album, you don’t go for amazing discoveries, it’s simply some kind of a reflexation of J. J.’s current state. How you feel today, J. J.? Are you in a fun mood, or particularly grim? Pissed off at ’em politicians, or feeling all romantic kinda like? That’s the ticket. And these records aren’t even meant to be treasured as separate entities, much like you don’t ever treasure separate issues of your favourite magazine.
But even while I fully and totally realize that, I can’t but feel seriously disappointed at this, Cale’s first album in almost seven years. After all, a guy who hasn’t put out a record in such a long period, who has consciously retired from music business and only resumed his former profession after a lengthy period of quiet, undisturbed, contemplative life, could be expected to release something at least vaguely different – with at least a tiny pinch of new impressions, new atmospheres and new lyrical messages. Nope. Stonewall nope. He picks off exactly where he left with #8 , with a bunch of loose blues-rockers, pop-rockers and occasional ballads that all sound the same (compared to your typical understanding of a musical band), all sound the same (compared to his previous output) and all sound the same (compared to each other).
Worse, he has – possibly subconsciously – begun recycling his old melodies. At least in past years the joy of the groove was in discovering, every now and then, some particularly interesting twist, some particularly different hook, some particularly weird guitar tone. Out of the thirteen songs on here, at least two thirds can be traced back to earlier songs: I won’t be doing that here because it’d take more time I have, but intuitively I can tell you that the majority of the vocal and instrumental melodies are just about the same as on, say, Really or Okie .
And finally, the toughest and leanest blow is that the productio of the record sucks . Oh no, it ain’t technically bad – it’s pretty clean. But it sounds strangely lifeless and cluttered, with instruments negligently piled on top of each other and no memorable guitar or piano lines ever standing out. If you don’t know what I mean, let me remind you, for instance, of the marvelous riff of ‘Cocaine’, or of the mind-blowing guitar chuggin’ on ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’. I guess I could say the album is overproduced, although I’d have a hard time proving that, because J. J. always had a habit of overdubbing several guitars on top of each other. Maybe a few of the tracks are overproduced, and this spoils the entire feeling.
Anyway, let me just name a few tracks that manage to stand out. ‘Shanghaid’, the album opener, is pretty good, I’d say, with its drum machine intro (which is pretty deceptive, by the way – you’d think that since the album is introduced by drum machines, it announces J. J.’s adoption of “Nineties ways”, but truth is, most of the other tracks on the album sound pretty timeless), rapped lyrics and a moody ‘orchestral riff’ in the catchy chorus. Out of the faster bluesy rockers, ‘No Time’ is pretty funny, with the constantly repeated title forming the main hookline. ‘Tijuana’, distinguished by Cale’s weeping Spanish guitar, can also be seen as a rare treat. And ‘Humdinger’ is pretty weird. ‘Humdinger, she likes to lick my finger’? Eh? What the hell is that? Strange Latin rhythms on that one. Maybe a couple other tracks could be noted for particularly nice moments of guitar technique – ‘River Boat Song’, for instance, has a particularly wonderful acoustic style displayed. But I tell you, if I had to pay full price for just a few moments of guitar technique, I’d probably end up buying some Steve Vai album instead.
Again, it ain’t a bad album – remember that according to the “magazine principle”, J. J. simply cannot make a bad album. And who knows, maybe this was a pretty conscious return, with J. J. afraid to produce something particularly inspiring in fear that too many people would buy it and it’d get him a good name somewhere on TV or so (mind you, though, J. J. hasn’t exactly been shunning TV in the Nineties though). I can’t even blame him on that saying he should have just gone on planting lettuce or something, because Travel-Log was a nice gift to the fans and besides, hey, a guy’s gotta express himself sometimes, ‘specially if da guy’s all pensive and like, kinda like J. J. here is. But you gotta understand me – it’s my job to give out ratings, and I can’t but give this one a lower rating because otherwise all the nice people on the Web will accuse me of being a rabid fanboy. And J. J. doesn’t want no rabid fanboys around.
Year Of Release: 1992
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
He’s getting a bit more rowdy and modernistic on here. which is a good thing.
Best song: DIGITAL BLUES
Track listing: 1) Lonesome Train; 2) Digital Blues ; 3) Feeling In Love; 4) Artificial Paradise; 5) Passion; 6) Take Out Some Insurance; 7) Jailer; 8) Low R >Roll On Mama .
Oh well, number 10 gets a 10. How dang unbearable predictable. Yet this is actually quite deserving of a 10. Standard J. J. Cale, not much better and not much worse than anything else, but let’s see, once I really got my sensitive antennae tuned in and all, I could sense that this is actually an improvement over Travel-log , even if J. J. “purists” might sometimes say the opposite. It doesn’t contain any obvious classics, but then, all the obvious classics have already been written; the important thing is, this doesn’t exactly stink so much of total ‘retro-ishness’ as Travel-log .
Again, the “modern influences” are pretty obvious here, with serious reliance upon drum machines and occasional guitar/synth effects that couldn’t have been used in the Seventies, but this time, they are intelligently sprinkled all over the songs (not all of them, though) instead of just being shoved onto the first one or two tracks to attract the contemporary listener. ‘Lonesome Train’ opens the album with a traditional J. J. blues, so it seems, but the wild percussion rhythms and the weird muffled guitar tones are anything but traditional, which makes the song somewhat stand out. And then there’s ‘Digital Blues’, perhaps the closest thing to a truly great song on the album – a dark, grim, moody tune where J. J. laments the de-individualization of the world, in a rather ordinary way (‘I got the digital blues, my soul is just another number’ – does it get any simpler than that?), but as always, with the utmost sincerity and passion. You gotta love the crashing stupid-sounding percussion all over the place, and the half-New-Agey, half-industrial synth backgrounds present a marvelous contrast with J. J.’s pleading guitar runs. It’s not too quiet and not too loud, not too down-to-earth and not too pretentious, and certainly gives some food for thought.
From then on, I can’t discern any particular highlights or lowlights, but the songs are mostly okay and I don’t really get that naggin’ “recycled memory” syndrome I got while sitting through Travel-log . Were I to discuss these songs on their own, I could probably say a lot. For instance, that ‘Feeling In Love’ features a very tasteful amalgamation of synths/piano/minimalistic guitar licks, all set to a catchy vocal melody. Or that J. J.’s playing on ‘Artificial Paradise’ would probably make me die and go to heaven had he actually played these notes sitting beside me on his little stool, which isn’t exactly that unsimilar to the actual feeling I get (even if the drum beat on that song is pretty trite adult contemporary). Or that ‘Take Out Some Insurance’, as underproduced and underarranged as it is, is perhaps the closest J. J. ever got so far to replicating the intimate delicacy of stuff like ‘Drifters Wife’ and so on. Or that, uhm, ‘Low Rider’ manages not to blow despite having a chorus like ‘She’s my low rider, some say she’s bad but she’s better than no rider’.
However, considering that I have already discussed all that stuff before, I’ll just keep shut about it. So, just in order to leave you some good memories of this here review, I’ll lay all my love on the last track of the album (even if ‘Digital Blues’ is still my favourite), ‘Roll On Mama’. What I did sorely miss, both here and before, was a good old rowdy piece of rock’n’roll with a gritty edge to it; what I occasionally encountered was either a piece of rock’n’roll without a gritty edge, or a piece of non-rock’n’roll with a gritty edge. This here track, even if it has absolutely no drumbeat to it, not even any brushes of any kind, features a dry scorching guitar tone that I haven’t heard in a long time and some cool cool boogie piano playing in one of the channels. This is the place to let some of your hair down and pick up your air guitar, folks! Good old rock’n’roll.
Still, there’s something missing here. I really don’t know what. I guess even moderate humble guys like J. J., who never need too many melodic ideas to make a great song, eventually get burnt out. Or, perhaps, it’s just that MUFFLED thing I was talking of. One thing J. J. never lacked was the sense of a crystal, transparent and sharp sound – with the drums chucking , the pianos tinkling , the guitars ringing , and the vocals croaking (or something like that). On this, and the previous record, the songs generally sound as if J. J. just put all his instruments into one big pile, thrust a mike in front of it, and then pushed the treble level to the minimum, as if everything had been sung from under a blanket. Maybe it’s just that, being pretty old now, he didn’t even want to pretend to possess the subtle energy of old, which is an honest move, of course, but it hardly makes up for inspired listening. Then again, heck, maybe it’s just that the melodies aren’t as good as they were before, but how interesting and thought-provoking could this review ever get if I just said “These songs are worse than the ones on Okie . Still, okay album”? Not that I think it’s thought-provoking anyway, of course. But at least it’s loooooong . Nobody will ever accuse me of not paying attention to J. J. now! Howdy hoe, I just wrote the lenghthiest review of Number 10 on the planet! Ain’t I the graphomaniac kind?
Year Of Release: 1994
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
And back to quiet again! And back to subtlety!
Best song: CLOSER TO YOU
Track listing: 1) Long Way Home; 2) Sho-biz Blues; 3) Slower Baby; 4) Devil’s Nurse; 5) Like You Used To; 6) Borrowed Time; 7) Rose In The Garden; 8) Brown Dirt; 9) Hard Love; 10) Ain’t Love Funny; 11) Closer To You; 12) Steve’s Song.
I can kinda understand the All-Music Guide, whose reviewers were so tired and probably frustrated they didn’t have the strength to supply this album with any review. Why bother, indeed, when the perfect review for this album would have been: ‘Well, gee, it’s one more J. J. Cale album, this time with a weird abstractionist album cover’? It’s not like he’s recorded any soft techno mixes or neo-prog epics on here. But me, that’s a different thing – I have taken this stupid burden of major analytic on myself, and thus, be prepared for a couple paragraphs of insecure subjective feelings presented under the guise of objective truth. What do I care? This is an album that didn’t get its own review from the AMG! I’m in no danger of being flamed or anything!
Anyway, my subjective feeling number one is that Closer To You is slightly more refined, down-to-earth and actually closer to the ‘classic’ J. J. style than the two previous records. Whether it’s closer to you or not, though, is a different matter. It has no instant classics just like the former two, and it has nothing that actually stands out like ‘Digital Blues’, and it hardly has anything that could even mildly kick ass a la ‘Shanghaid’. And yet, just get this: these Nineties albums, if you wanna pay any attention to them at all, have probably to be taken not separately, song-after-song, but rather as collective unities. Once you stop dissecting the LPs/CDs and treat them as simply “multi-part stuff”, Closer To You emerges as the most self-consciously complete and concise of the three. The modernistic production is kept to a minimum, more or less only so that the listener would instinctively recognize that the album was recorded in the Nineties, and the essence is such that once again Cale extols his guitar, sings closer to the mike than before, and kinda offers you a real picture of what’s going inside his creative mind and his sensitive soul. In other words, “Closer To You” indeed.
But the downside is typical – once again, J. J. really fails to come up with the kind of insanely catchy, impressive melodies he used to have in his prime. The songs are nice , nothing more than just that. I’ll try to pick out the highlights, as usual, but don’t blame me if I don’t manage to convince you of their High Light character as I’m not too sure myself. The title track is the one I’d pick as the most obviously outstanding one, just because the vocal tricks on it are cute – it seems like J. J. experimentally overdubbed two tracks, one regular and one electronically processed, which gives a really eerie feeling especiall when listening on the headphones; as for the melody itself, it’s pretty ordinary folksy territory, although the overdubbed guitars are tasteful to the brim, of course. Then there’s also ‘Brown Dirt’, where the muddy, gruff instrumentation (at least three or four different guitars overdubbed over an ominous synth track) is supposed to really get you down, and it does. And. uh. I guess that’s all. Well, I suppose I could call the closing instrumental ‘Steve’s Song’ a highlight because it’s the only vocalless track, but truth is, J. J. has done much better instrumentals before.
As for the rest, I’m a bit surprised at the abundance of direct country ballads here. ‘Rose In The Garden’ and ‘Ain’t Love Funny’, for instance, almost seem to be the same song, even if it’s really just the waltz tune that keeps me confused. However, apart from that, J. J. also introduces his typical jazzy ballad (‘Like You Used To’) and even throws in some modernized cabaret/lounge muzak (‘Hard Love’). When positioned next to faster rollickin’ country-rockers like ‘Long Way Home’ or ‘Borrowed Time’, this initially gives a feeling of true diversity, but everything is toned down so seriously the album still seems monotonous.
Yet I do like all this stuff when taken together. If Travel-log sounded a bit constipated, as if J. J. was just painfully trying to remember his style, and Number 10 sounded a bit inassured, as if he didn’t quite realize what to do with the style once he got it back, then Closer To You seems like a perfectly adequate product from a man who’s finally settled upon the final decision – keep the old style going and slightly diversify it and make it more interesting with a light (not exaggerated) touch of Nineties’ recording possibilities. This is my take on that thing. It may be all wrong – if you’re still discontent, you can call up J. J. himself, and granted he’ll spare you a couple of minutes free from his fishing, he may explain to you about how he just doesn’t give a damn about no ‘different approaches’ and how there is no and can be no “conception” behind any of his records. And he may be right, too, or he may be wrong, or he may be consciously right and subconsciously wrong, or whatever. (I like the idea of being ‘subconsciously wrong’, by the way – it’s an excellent pretext for the philologist to insert any of his own suggestions into the so called “objective” analysis and proclaim that they’re right because the writer/artist in question did it ‘subconsciously’. Gives me more food, too!).
Anyway, just keep buying J. J. records if you’re a fan, and just keep ignoring ’em if you’re not. That’s the best conclusion for ye.
Year Of Release: 1996
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
This one mostly leaves me cold, but I guess there’s only so much Cale you can scale.
Best song: DEATH IN THE WILDERNESS
Track listing: 1) Death In The Wilderness ; 2) It’s Hard To Tell; 3) Days Go By; 4) Low Down; 5) This Town; 6) Guitar Man ; 7) If I Had A Rocket; 8) Perfect Woman; 9) Old Blue; 10) Doctor Told Me; 11) Miss Of St Louie; 12) Nobody Knows.
Look, J. J. Cale is great. He’s important. He’s sincere to the last electron in his body. (Although what do I know, I ain’t his consort now am I?). And I KNOW I’m not supposed to really downgrade this album. But I just can’t help it, Guitar Man is so dang interchangeable with that last record, or the two before it, that it makes AC/DC seem like every next record they put out was their take on The White Album or something. And since I’ve run out of meaningful things to say about J. J.’s style, philosophy, personality, influence, importance, or potential about six or seven reviews ago, if not more than that, please pardon me if this here review makes even less sense than usual. Sometimes I think J. J. might have been putting out these records mainly so that the music magazine critics wouldn’t have the feeling that they’re making a living for nothing – it takes one HELL of a brainy guy to come up with something meaningful and entertaining at once in such cases.
One good thing (for me, not for the fans, of course) is that Guitar Man is J. J.’s last studio album up-to-date and no further sequels are to be seen in the near future – rumours have it that J. J. has all but announced his quitting the musical scene, being thoroughly disgusted with the general state of things and grubby record companies and slick soulless promotion techniques and everything. A strange decision, of course, and I have an itchin’ suspicion J. J. just got pissed off at something particularly personal. Like, for instance, there has actually been quite a lot of promotion for Guitar Man , with J. J. actually touring and giving out interviews and even appearing on TV shows (things that he usually abhors, so it is said), yet the album didn’t sell much anyway, and perhaps J. J. just got sick of allowing himself to be ‘downgraded’ like that and then not even getting his share of the dough. Or maybe not. What we have is the fact: Guitar Man signalled an unprecedented level of activity in the Cale camp, and then the man just kinda sizzled out.
And. the album? A J. J. Cale album. This time, though, I can only say a couple things about a couple of songs, not really more than that. One funny observation is how on all these ‘new’ records J. J. keeps taking one “less formulaic” song and putting it in the beginning, thus creating a subconscious feel of ‘something special on the move’, but then the rest of the album is typical and generic. This time, it’s even more obvious: ‘Death In The Wilderness’, the opening number, is wildly different from everything else. Unlike most other songs in the Cale catalog, it’s not so much dependent on actual melody – it does have one, but it’s not too prominent – as it is on arrangement and atmosphere. It should be noted that J. J. recorded this album as a one-man band, for the most part ditching the hordes of session players he’d always fostered before, which makes the results even more fascinating: it really took some guts to record a thing like that song. The ravaging drum machines alone probably took a hell of a lot of time to put in order – I haven’t heard that much paranoia stemming from a drum machine since, uh, ‘No One Receiving’ by Brian Eno. And then there are the synths and the guitars, all weaving with each other, and the chuggin’ crazy bassline, and a total atmosphere of chaos and thunderstorm never yet heard on a Cale record, yet it’s a quiet kind of thunderstorm, you know, the kind of inner turbulence that goes on inside your mind without you ever letting any goddamn bastard to witness it.
Another highlight is the title track, even if the main body of the song never lives up to the weird, but beautiful wave-like arpeggios in the introduction. It doesn’t try too much to sound like a retro number, with unconcealed electronic beats and synth (or synth guitar) solos all over the place, but so much for the better, because the combination of J. J.’s usual bluesy songwriting style and modern production (carefully handled by the master) really works this time. But unfortunately, ‘Guitar Man’ is about the only song on here where that is visible.
And the rest? See my comments on, well, the rest. Starting from ‘It’s Hard To Tell’ and ending with ‘Nobody Knows’, the other ten songs, even if they also have some occasional synth solos to liven them up, are all clones of the past and say nothing new to me. No, okay, so they’re nice and all, but. ah well. Some of the guitar solos, I’ve noticed, are particularly aggressive and occasionally even heavy – quite often, J. J. lets rip with a few really fast guitar lines, something not too usual in his career but maybe he was simply in a pissed off kind of state when he was recording the album already. And just as a weird bit of trivia, track number nine on here is ‘Old Blue’, an old tune you might remember from the Byrds’ Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde . (Although what sounded cute and attention-attracting on the Byrds record, lame as it was in general, just sounds like a totally run-of-the-mill thing here).
Well, at least I didn’t expect any particular flash of brilliance from Mr Cale as he ends his recording career. It doesn’t sound at all like some musical bequest, but I guess writing a musical bequest would be deemed way too pretentious for J. J. Just another album. As always. Scoop it up. Or don’t scoop it up. You’re the boss, you make the call. Good album. Bad album. So-so album. It’s all of these and more. It’s all of these and less. It’s your dime.
Year Of Release: 2001
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Nonchalant live retrospective. You might not like it.
Best song: AFTER MIDNIGHT
Track listing: 1) After Midnight; 2) Old Man; 3) Call Me The Breeze; 4) Sensitive Kind; 5) Cocaine; 6) Money Talks; 7) River Boat Song; 8) Living Here Too; 9) Mama Don’t; 10) People Lie; 11) Humdinger; 12) Thirteen Days; 13) Magnolia; 14) Ride Me High.
But wait! That’s not the end of the story. Five years after his “retirement”, J. J. partially broke his vow and presented the fans with this thingie. Can’t really complain – J. J. was never the guy to capitalize on multiple live recordings (it’s his first one), and as some kind of a brief summary for his career, Live supposedly works pretty well. Not a pretentious swan song, not a somber collection of dark death-related epics, just a batch of live performances – no structure, no concept, just something live ‘n’ active to brighten your day.
The track listing and choice is somewhat strange, actually. This is not one coherent show; instead, J. J. has assembled fourteen cuts from various shows all recorded within the 1990-96 period (the most “active” show is the March 29, 1996 Carnegie Hall show, but it doesn’t cover even half of the material). The songs haven’t even been pieced together, with every number fading out at the end, which means the coherency level is simply next to zero. With this principle, it could be expected that the man could have unearthed some tapes of his performances in the ‘classic’ years, but no such luck. Either they don’t exist or he consciously didn’t want ’em. Yet even so, the material itself is mostly all old classics. The most recent point he ventures up to is Travel-log , with but two songs out of fourteen (‘River Boat Song’ and ‘Humdinger’). Everything else is from the earlier albums, with almost each and every one from Naturally to #8 getting its due (sadly unrepresented is Grasshopper , which I still insist is one of his absolute best). Does this mean that Cale himself never thought that highly of his new material? Or was this just a nod to the fans who’d rather hear old classics than new takes on the old style? Who knows.
The recordings themselves are fun, but I’d hardly call them essential. Of course, I can’t vouch for J. J. live in the Seventies/Eighties, but his Nineties’ approach seems to have a lot in common with the Dylan approach, namely, that the Important Thing # 1 is Total And Complete Spontaneity and that the Important Thing # 2 is not to have any more important things at all. The presence of Bob, or the presence of J. J., itself is guarantee alone that the artistic spirit is alive and reelin’ and wheelin’ through the concert hall; whether your guitar is well-tuned, your voice well-shaped, and your backing band well-collected, isn’t really all that important. If this works for you, on you go – I know many people for whom it definitely doesn’t, and can understand them very well. In fact, sometimes I turn into one of them! But not when I’m reviewing something of the kind, of course.
So, the performances are absolutely spontaneous, and Cale pays absolutely no respect to his material. But it’s not like he seriously, consciously and thoughtfully changes the arrangements. No, he just. he just arrives, leaves his backing band behind, picks up his electric and goes off into playing ‘After Midnight’ – a sloppy, but skilled and sensitive version, something of a cross between the early upbeat single and the later downbeat dark LP version. Then he gets his bass player and with equal nonchalance veers off into ‘Old Man And Me’. Missed note here, missed note there. never mind, just dig in the vibe. ‘Call Me The Breeze’ arrives, and with it the entire backing band, and finally there’s some kind of tightness, but J. J.’s guitar work is even more minimalistic than usual – does he even give a damn about what he’s doing out there? Well, I guess he does.
You could say that ‘Cocaine’ is absolutely butchered, for instance – the main riff of the song is rushed and swallowed, and finally just smoothed out to becoming unrecognizable, and the song is sped up and the vocals mumbled. But surely J. J. does that because he doesn’t want nothing to do with the Clapton version? “If he steals my version, fuck ‘im, I’m gonna do one more!” Then again, what about ‘Mama Don’t’? A big part of the charm of the original Shades version was that subtle gradual addition of instruments with each verse. here, all the instruments are established at once, and the groove is lost. And J. J. mumbles and swallows so much the vocal rhythmics just go to total shit. So, is he mocking us or what?
The final answer is: you decide. One thing is for sure – I’d rather hear a spontaneous album than note-for-note renditions of studio originals (a nearly impossible thing all the same, because J. J.’s subtle and witty system of overdubbing would be hard to recreate on stage even with the addition of extra guitarists), and after the ‘shock’ wears off, which takes two or three listens, the album will certainly come off as not grating at all. Whether you’ll want to listen to it after that or not, I can’t predict. In any case, when taken in system, it’s the perfect conclusion to J. J. Cale’s career: no grand statement, just play. But man , is that photo inside the liner notes really scary! Surely he hasn’t been doing as much drugs as Keith Richards? Surely he hasn’t? Ah well, I suppose that’s your typical image of a wise, but troubled aged Okie who’s seen the world in more details than you have.
TO TULSA AND BACK
Year Of Release: 2004
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Looks like the humblest guy in the music world is back with a vengeance. Do humility and vengeance ever go hand in hand?
Best song: STONE RIVER. FANCY DANCER. MY GAL. Heck, I dunno.
Track listing: 1) My Gal ; 2) Chains Of Love; 3) New Lover; 4) One Step; 5) Stone River ; 6) The Problem ; 7) Homeless; 8) Fancy Dancer ; 9) Rio; 10) These Blues; 11) Motormouth ; 12) Blues For Mama ; 13) Another Song.
Maybe I’m getting prematurely old myself, but fact is, time after time after time I find myself realizing that the dinosaurs of rock, after going through all their synth-pop, mid-life crisis, heroin rehabilitation etc. stages, are one by one settling into a settled groove in order to just do one thing they do best and then DO it. From Lou Reed to Jethro Tull, from Bob Dylan to Bowie, from Deep Purple to Alice Cooper, etc., etc., they’re growing so scaringly good that in terms of pure quality (disregarding innovation or flimsier categories like “relevance”), they’re once again able to compete with the young blood. And ever so often, beat the young blood. Or drink it for that matter.
In fact, it happened so often, that I honestly was not afraid to pick up the latest J. J. Cale album. I did not believe it would be just another interchangeable J. J. Cale record. His longest break from studio recording yet (been eight years now), and now he’s emerging in an entirely new epoch, and he’s gotta do something special. I knew it. And, of course, I was right. To Tulsa And Back just had to be his finest effort since at least Grasshopper , and so it was. It might be even better. It might be one of his finest efforts ever, and the only thing that prevents me from rating it even higher is that it doesn’t have any outstanding classics on it, on the ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ level or something.
As usual, writing a review of a J. J. Cale album is not unlike trying to have sexual intercourse with the Statue of Liberty, but, as they say in the frog-eating country, noblesse oblige , so here’s me wrecking my brain against your ungrateful monitor. Where should I begin? Well, how’s about the album actually including a song that can’t be interpreted in any other way than an angry condemnation of G. W. Bush’s policies? The song is called ‘The Problem’, and the problem, as J. J. inequivocally states, is ‘the man in charge you know’. ‘The man in charge he don’t know what he’s doing/He don’t know the world has changed’ – these words might seem pretty banal coming from the mouth of some twenty-year old protester, but with J. J., it’s different. It’s the word from the wise. Or, rather, the “blurt from the wise”, because old age hasn’t taught Cale to sing with any more distinction. (He does have the lyrics printed in the liner notes, though). And the melody is sort of a gentle, upbeat country-blues shuffle that doesn’t – by itself – give even a meak hint at any kind of aggression or anger. Word from the wise.
Very much of the album seems to be dedicated to social problems of all kind. Politics, economics, ecology – obviously J. J. has accumulated quite a few topics over the past eight years, and, well, I’m all too happy to hear him take this load off, all that coming from the most laconic guy in rock. Then there’s the usual kind of J. J. Cale love song (about which I can say, paraphrasing somebody I don’t remember the name of, that where the average love song goes ‘I love you’, the typical J. J. Cale love song goes ‘I don’t object to you’), and then there’s the usual “little observation here, tiny observation there” kind of song. But more important, of course, is that the music is so dang fresh.
He’s still quite a technology fan, our most beloved Okie, but this time, modernistic devices are pushed way below, never threatening the spirit of the music as they did on his 90s records. As a result, this sounds the closest in essence to Bob Dylan’s recent Love And Theft : a similarly attuned rootsy backing band playing all kinds of good ol timey music, from boogie to country-blues to Chicago blues to lounge jazz to a little Latin, gracefully ending it all with just Cale and a lonesome banjo for ‘Another Song’. Everything sports the unmistakable J. J. Cale whiff, and yet no two songs sound truly alike! And given J. J.’s careful approach to The Hook, you can bet your life all of the songs have something to offer.
‘Stone River’, an acoustic-and-organ-driven blues shuffle, is one of the album’s best just because the slightly ominous music matches the slightly ominous (ecological) message so well. But in terms of pure melody my heart has certainly been stolen away by ‘Fancy Dancer’, so simple that I have a hard time believing J. J. Cale actually wrote that melody in friggin’ 2004 instead of lifting it directly from some other time, back when the grass was so much greener. It’s truly songs like ‘Fancy Dancer’ that separate J. J. from the classic ole bluesman stereotype and put him in a class of his own – behind all the gruffness and all the moroseness, the old boy really has a kind, romantic heart, open to kind, romantic fantasies. Which might just have been the one thing that helped him so easily get through life, but don’t let me start digressing or speculating here. The unmistakable fact is I still have tears in my eyes. And that’s objectivity for ya!
Not that there ain’t any gloominess on here. There’s plenty. ‘Homeless’ repeats the usual trick of taking a personal tragedy and presenting it as a ‘nothing-out-of-the-ordinary’ sort of thing, which, of course, makes the overall effect even more tragic, but that’s one thing J. J. will probably never admit in public, the ol’ sly fox. Pretty acoustic melody, strange double-tracked vocals, breathtaking guitar solo at the end – as breathtaking, of course, as a ten-note guitar solo can be. (Which is often more breathtaking than a ten thousand-note guitar solo, of course). And I don’t have any information on whether the dirge ‘Blues For Mama’ has any personal meaning for Cale, but it could well be that he’s lamenting a lost relative – not too many people write straightahead mourning songs “for sport”. Whatever be, it’s one of the simplest and most brutally honest dirges ever written. The way he quietly howls through the word ‘blue-woo-woo-woo-s’ sends sparks down my spine.
In case you’re getting rusty, there’s two fast boogie-style numbers here, one of which – ‘Motormouth’ – is particularly classy (and good for actually witnessing Cale’s guitar technique during that brief moment in time when he’s not actively busy concealing it); and ‘Chains Of Love’ and ‘Rio’ will get you wiggling your butt in prime Latin manner, although Cale’s Latin stylizations to me have always seemed the weak link in his pedigree. Whatever be, you won’t get bored, even if you’re not crazy about rootsy music in general.
It’s interesting to note that To Tulsa And Back is J. J.’s first album (out of thirteen) to feature a plain photo of the guy on the album sleeve (and only the second album to feature his image of any kind). Has Vanity finally gotten hold of Cale’s heel? Or has he simply softened a bit as he got so old, at least towards those fans who don’t even have a good notion of his appearance? Is he “coming out” after all those years? Probably not; anyway, if he intentionally missed the chance of becoming a big star in the Seventies, there’s hardly any way to become one today even if he should suddenly feel such a desire. I’d rather say that dear old J. J. is simply coming to terms with himself. In the past, hiding, self-effacing, “anti-star” behaviour was such an important point that he eventually began hiding and self-effacing for hiding’s own sake – bordering occasionally on the ridiculous. To Tulsa And Back has nothing ridiculous about it. We now know what J. J. Cale looks like – a normal old Southern guy with a knowledgeable, but not know-it-all expression on its face; and we certainly know that he can play what he wants, be it rock, blues, or jazz and how he wants, be it flashy or minimalistic. And the more the better, I say!