Eric Clapton has been a fan of JJ Cale for three decades, providing the reclusive guitarist with perhaps his most powerful promotional help through covers of songs such as "Cocaine" and "After Midnight". Conversely, Cale has thus provided Clapton with at least a couple of his best recordings. It's apt, then, that the first collaboration from this guitarists' mutual admiration society should be in effect a Cale album of duets with EC, 11 of the 14 tracks being written by the Okie legend.
It's a much looser, more relaxed recording than recent Clapton albums, with none of the self-conscious "blues heritage" aspects of the Robert Johnson tribute album and the BB King collaboration. This is more like Cale's most recent release, 2004's To Tulsa and Back, to my mind the most underrated album of the millennium. There's a wonderfully warm, intimate tone, and an admirably egoless affection for the unifying power of the groove; their guitar fills are lean and fluid rather than showy. The most pleasant surprise is the way the pair's mild, undemonstrative voices combine beautifully on choruses, as if they were brothers who have sung together all their lives.
The opener "Danger" is typical, its gently rolling groove embellished with neat guitar solos executed not in a competitive axe-battle manner, but as exercises of elegant, emotional restraint. "When the War Is Over" follows in similar manner, its infectious 12-bar riff carrying another of Cale's mild-mannered war protests: "It don't make sense to go round killing people all the time," he notes with irrefutable logic: "If it happened in the street, it would be a crime". Elsewhere, "Who Am I Telling You" offers an unadorned, sage reflection on love and age, while "Last Will and Testament" lightens matters with the sixtysomething Cale's droll riposte to the gold-digging relatives who feign affection as the grave gets nearer: "When it's all over, and they put you in the ground/ Send all my belongings to the lost and found".
For his part, Clapton offers "Three Little Girls", a charming paean to parenthood whose melody has echoes of the skiffle standard "Freight Train", and he essays a slow, smoky treatment of John Mayer's Bobby Bland-style blues "Hard To Thrill". Further variety is provided by "Dead End Road", a virtuoso bluegrass shuffle featuring a demon fiddler soloing alongside the guitarists, while a cover of the most mesmerically hypnotic of Cale's shuffle-grooves, "Anyway the Wind Blows", is a touchstone for the qualities - modesty, comfort, effortless artistry, stress-relieving balm - that define the entire project.
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