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News of JJ Cale’s passing in 2013 pretty much came and went without much fanfare in the popular press. Which is understandable for a man who deliberately sought to live under the radar. Despite his influence and respected stature, Cale eschewed publicity and avoided the limelight. Cale’s sound has always been a low key, infectious groove and his influence on 20th Century music is easy to underestimate. But his influence was massive. It could be heard most notably in Eric Clapton, who made no secret of celebrating and paying tribute to Cale. What’s more, Clapton used his fame to graciously bring Cale to a wider audience he may not have enjoyed otherwise. Other fans include Beck and Neil Young, to name a few. The varied list of artists who have covered JJ Cale’s songs is truly impressive. Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, Bryan Ferry to Captain Beefheart. Today’s Dan Auerbach and John Mayer owe him a huge debt. Yet, there’s nothing like the genuine article.
Cale created a signature sound and he made no bones about sticking to it. He always approached music on his own terms and you either went there or you didn’t. For my money, I went there. Time and time again. There’s nothing else like it. From the first note, you know who it is. JJ Cale was an original.
Cale’s widow and longtime manager took their own sweet time to compile this posthumous collection. One listen and all I can say is, it would have been great if Cale had stayed around a little longer. ‘Lights Down Low’ is quintessential Cale. Just grabs you right at the start. What’s more, there are no frills, no big star cameos. This is the sound of Cale getting down to business without much fuss. A song that manages to be both infectiously laid back, yet faintly ominous.
In a less ageist musical market, ‘Chasing You’ would be a hit. Musically, it’s wistful and a touch breezy, but lyrically there’s a real sense of desperation at odds with Cale’s low-key delivery. Like much of Cale’s work, beneath the unassuming demeanor, lies a tale that’s much more than meet the eye.
‘Winter Snow’ has never sounded as groovy, Cale laying down the kind of riffs you hear in oft venerated Bluesman like Lightning Hopkins. Of course, the winter snow Cale might be referring to may be of a more illicit than natural variety. Regardless, it’s a haunting song inexplicably driving along with more than a few glances in the rearview mirror.
Like most of the album, the title track sounds commercial without ever selling out. “Ain’t nowhere else you got to go, and neither do I”, Cale nonchalantly shrugs. But this more than just a song of romantic persuasion. There’s something at stake. Something unspoken.
‘Oh My My’, is Cale at his most charming while ‘My Baby Blues’ is the old badger at his most infectious. No one lays down such smooth, funky grooves. Cale makes it sound effortless. Like Astaire, when he takes to the dancefloor. But you know there’s some real blood, sweat, and tears behind all that seeming grace. That he’s only telling you the half of it with those off the cuff lines. Elsewhere, ‘Girl Mine’ comes the closest to sounding like scratchy, old-timey Blues. One can easily hear the ghosts of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins blowing through Cale’s bones.
‘Go Downtown’ is as lonesome as its foreboding. In contrast, the spare ‘If We Try’ possesses a vulnerability long lurking beneath Cale’s cards close to the chest delivery. The likes of ‘Tell Daddy’ and the priceless closer, ‘Don’t Call Me Joe’ find Cale veering more into Jazz territory, yet still keeping it anchored in the common language of the Blues.
There may not be any surprises here, but this is JJ Cale as you’ve always known him. This one is like an old pair of boots. They fit like a glove and they not only have a checkered past, they’re just the thing to step off toward new horizons in. Fashion comes and goes, but something tells me JJ Cale’s music is going to stay around.