J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton,
The Road to Escondido
(Reprise/Warner, 2006)

"Better than it sounds" is the oldest music critic's joke in the language, but it surely applies to The Road to Escondido, whose pleasures wait to be unearthed beneath what an inattentive, initial observation may mistake -- foolishly -- for blandness. Put the disc on the player a few times, listen better than casually, and the music starts to emerge as richly various, witty and warm, exposing itself as a textured modern blues with rock, folk and jazz accents.

In other words, basically the experience you probably had last time you listened to a JJ Cale album. For me, as I suspect for you, that was a while ago. And no doubt about it, this is a JJ Cale album. Eleven of the 14 cuts are his, and in all ways it's his trademark sound. Eric Clapton deserves a tip of the hat for harboring the good sense and generosity of spirit to step aside and give his unfamous friend center stage. Long an outspoken champion of this spotlight-averse musician whom otherwise the larger world may never have heard, Clapton has covered some of Cale's compositions, most notably the 1970s hits "After Midnight" and "Cocaine."

The Oklahoma-born Cale formed a style decades ago and has stuck with it even as other fashions have shined and faded. His vocals, made up of gravel and air in equal measure, feel as if blowing in from a distance, the words only hinting at the depth of experience and reflection to which they bear testimony. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Cale knows how to sing the blues.

As often as not, the lyrics give voice to the familiar roots theme of rambles along rural highways, railways, and riverways, along with, naturally, romantic travails, lust of other than the wander- kind, and true love triumphant. Set to a chugging train-kept-a-rollin' rhythm, "When This War is Over," with Cale and Clapton trading verses, is a bracingly blunt-spoken assault on a certain uncalled-for Middle Eastern conflict: "When this war is over / It will be a better day / But it won't bring back / Those poor boys in their graves." "Dead End Road" and "Last Will & Testament," by way of contrast, seem oddly chipper given that they're about futility, treachery and mortality. In the one cut neither wrote, Cale and Clapton lovingly resurrect Brownie McGhee's achingly fatalistic "Sporting Life Blues."

The studio band boasts such luminaries as electric guitarists Doyle Bramhall II, Derek Trucks, John Mayer and Albert Lee. Taj Mahal blows harmonica, and Billy Preston, who died soon afterwards, puts in an appearance on organ and piano. They and the rest -- drummers, percussionists, keyboardists, horn men, a fiddler -- are grizzled pros having a manifestly fine old time. All concerned can take pride that the music sounds like it always has, as it should.

by Jerome Clark
24 March 2007

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