Eric Clapton - Clapton

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I’ve been a long time fan of Eric Clapton, an artist who is now touching his 6th decade of music recordings.  Like most, my interest was in his guitar work, which built and sustains his place as a premiere artist in modern music.  That said, if I were to listen to Clapton, it’s usually something recorded live – E.C. Was Here, Unplugged, Live with Steve Winwood at Madison Square Garden, or, my favorite, Just One Night.

His studio recording career is actually not that impressive other than for its duration.  Some albums are clearly good (461 Ocean’s Boulevard, Journeyman, From the Cradle), and some are clearly bad (Reptile, Backless, Another Ticket, There’s One in Every Crowd, August, Pilgrim).  But even within the good ones, there are clunkers, and even in the bad ones, there are keepers.  His greatest, Layla & Other Associated Love Songs, stands alone for consistency but remains a collaboration with Duane Allman.  Obviously, he’s revered as a “great” for much more than the summation of many mixed bags would suggest.  He is a phenomenal guitarist, and he writes some excellent songs.  Yet, his musical styles change regularly, production values vary, his songwriting hits and misses, and he dislikes his own vocals.

So, how can I review an Eric Clapton CD and expect anything other than a mixed review? 

Well, then.  After obtaining celebrity in a number of bands (The Yardbirds and Cream, primarily), Clapton released his first solo record in 1970, titled Eric Clapton.  This isn’t a very imaginative title, but there are a lot of self-titled CDs.  On the heels of his various group recordings, one might posit that an album named such would be personal, a statement that the contents are a reflection or interpretation of who the artist is at that moment.  It fit that description to a point, as it was a solid album that showcased what he was best at but also revealed that he had further interests than just playing the blues or rock.  Clapton’s own quote regarding his initial solo CD was “This album wasn’t what it was intended to be at all.  It’s actually better than it was meant to be because, in a way, I just let it happen.  It’s an eclectic collection of songs that weren’t really on the map – and I like it so much because if it’s a surprise for the fans, that’s only because it’s a surprise to me, as well.”

40 years later, we arrive at an even less imaginative title, Clapton.  Was this because his full name had already been used? 

Or is it a symbolic bookend to a career? 

From song selection to band selection to song styles, Clapton seems a much more deliberate undertaking, but it remains committed to the eclectic.  Featuring only one original song, the CD is a revue of the old and obscure, featuring guest artists who virtually take over the lead instrumentals – Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall, Allen Toussaint, Wynton Marsalis, JJ Cale. Upon listening, the two most obvious observations are that Clapton all but abandons lead guitar (certainly not a buyer expectation) and, ironically, that the CD is largely a vocal performance by Clapton.  This certainly isn’t considered playing to one’s strengths.

The set begins with “Travelin’ Alone,” a bluesy song that seems self restrained both in vocals and guitar tones.  It does, however, set the mood for much of what follows.  Second is “Rocking Chair,” a cover song but one that invites speculation lyrically for an artist who is now 65.  It’s among the strongest cuts on the CD, and I would imagine that Clapton’s only regret is that his voice lacks the gravel of past blues masters.

Next is “River Runs Deep,” a song co-sung by its author, JJ Cale.  This is another mood piece, beautiful in its understatement and subtlety, or, conversely, tamed to suit those nearing slumber.  I think it falls in the former category.  The harmonica driven “Judgment Day” follows in a theme similar to “Rocking Chair,” but lacks the former’s affective spirit.

Piano, jazz guitar, and keyboard washes set the mood for “How Deep is the Ocean,” and, hey, this is an Eric Clapton CD, right?  Yes, it is.  And don’t forget the trumpet solo.  To my ears, “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” is the misfit of the bunch.   The music, the melody, the vocals… I just don’t need to hear this one. 

“Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” features guitar and harmonica in what wants to be a slow blues rocker, but it never quite delivers.  JJ Cale returns to assist on “That’s No Way to Get Along,” featuring slide guitar and sounding mid-70’s era Clapton. But it’s not particularly energetic.

The bass and percussion underpin “Everything Will Be Alright,” which is to say it’s okay but forgettable.  Sheryl Crow tries to uplift a song about overcoming in “Diamonds Made from Rain,” which still sounds a bit of a downer due to the lower musical tones that persist through the CD.  Clapton unleashes his inner Satchelmouth on “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” a piano based song that succeeds, surprisingly. 

“Hard Time Blues” revisits the roots of Clapton’s inspirations, with beautifully played guitar as would be expected.  “Run Back to Your Side” qualifies as the best rock song on the CD.  In that it’s the only song that attempts that distinction doesn’t lessen its value.  It features a mean slide guitar riff borrowed from Los Super Seven or earlier musical ancestors.

On the heels of a scorcher, we conclude with “Autumn Leaves,” a jazzy piano piece with all of the emphasis on Clapton’s vocals.  And it’s a clear winner.

Is this a great Clapton CD?  Clearly not.  Is it bad?  No.  There’s too many good moments.  If it weren’t a Clapton CD, how would it be regarded?  That’s the test that this must face, because while he has included “roots music” through his career, this rarely sounds like anything that Clapton has done.  He deserves a lot of credit for the song selection and shaping each song the way he has, but it remains a trademark hit and miss. 

Recommended Songs: “Rocking Chair,” “Hard Time Blues,” “Run Back to Your Side,” and “Autumn Leaves.”

3 of 5 STARS

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