From the get-go, this laid-back album has been promoted as a widely heralded collaboration between two guitar greats. And it is. But more on that in a minute. There’s something of a pattern here. ‘The Road to Escondido’ also appears very much to be the latest attempt by Clapton to reconnect with his roots in a very evocative way.
You remember – five years ago, there was an album with B.B. King, and there was the more recent release in which he played Robert Johnson tunes. So it’s not surprising that Clapton would turn to JJ Cale for his latest inspiration. For those who didn’t know or weren’t around to remember, Cale authored a couple of Clapton’s most successful tunes: ‘After Midnight,’ which appeared on his eponymous solo debut in 1970, and ‘Cocaine,’ a radio staple and concert favorite from 1977’s Slowhand. The story behind this newest album has it that Clapton initially sought Cale as a producer, but the pairing evolved into an honest-to-goodness, full-blown duet.
Ironically, though, this winds up feeling more like a Cale album much of the time. For one thing, Cale wrote 11 of the 14 songs, with Clapton contributing just two. And perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but these guys sound nearly identical. In fact, it’s often hard to tell who is singing (although Clapton’s voice is slightly deeper). Most of all, the groove here is very much in keeping with Cale’s trademark relaxed and understated style – a slightly swampy sound with lyrics that can resemble the plot in a cheap paperback you have trouble putting down.
Like Cale’s best work, it’s the sort of music that sneaks up on you, rather than popping out of your speakers and grabbing you by the throat or heart or whatever. The songs shuffle along and meander, but are invariably catchy and eventually hook you in. This starts on the opening track, ‘Danger;’ continues on ‘Missing Person,’ about a lover who’s left; and climaxes on the gorgeous and plaintiff ode ‘Who Am I To Tell You?’ The method works just as well on a pair of snappy shuffles – ‘Ride The River’ and ‘Anyway The Wind Blows,’ both of which feature some wonderful guitar work. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know if that’s Clapton fingering the fret – Doyle Bramhall II, Derek Trucks, John Mayer and Albert Lee also show up but don’t receive specific credit for particular songs, let along the roles they played. In fact, several of Clapton stalwarts also appear, including Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, as well as such old chums as Billy Preston and Taj Mahal.
Yet they all do a good job of interpreting Cale’s musical vision and fill the spaces with just the right notes, rhythms and flourishes. For those who prefer Clapton when he reverts to his beloved blues, by the way, he does a sweet version of Brownie McGhee’s ‘Sporting Life Blues.’ If there’s any gripe, it would be the production makes everything sound a bit too clean. This album would be even more appealing if the sound was just a little more down home, like a good Cale outing, rather than something that emulates the crisp feel of a new Clapton album. In the scheme of things, that’s a mere quibble. Clapton and Cale may have called this ‘The Road to Escondido,’ but these songs are really the road to your CD player or iPod, where they’re going to stay.