J.J. Cale

Naturally (Shelter 72) Rating: A-
A major influence on Eric Clapton's solo career and Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler, among others, laid-back Texas bluesman J.J. Cale (not John Cale of The Velvet Underground) was a late bloomer (not unlike Roy Buchanan) but he immediately made up for lost time with this terrific debut album, which was recorded when he was already in his thirties and which only came to be because Eric Clapton had a hit single with a cover of an earlier Cale version of "After Midnight." Released on friend Leon Russell's Shelter label, this album is comprised of supremely relaxed, mostly slow or mid-tempo country and/or folk-tinged blues pop tunes. If you're looking for excitement, variety, or loud music, look elsewhere, but if you want a subtle, atmospheric "chill out" album with a seductively swampy sound and a modest, almost demo-like feel, then this first album, which many regard as Cale's best (and if it's not it's certainly among his best), is a great starting point for investigating Cale's career, which would subsequently be noted more for its admirable consistency than for its peaks. True, Cale's not a great singer by any means, but his smoky, almost whispered drawl fits these tunes to a tee, and his inventive use of rhythms (some supplied by an early drum machine), violins, horns, and the like, gives most of these songs a deceptive depth, though it is his taut, economical guitar playing that I find most satisfying. As for the songs, well after a while most of them fail to stand out from one another (again, variety is not really his thing), but there's a reason that so many of these songs have been covered by others, most famously "Call Me The Breeze" (Lynyrd Skynyrd), "Clyde" (Waylon Jennings), "After Midnight" (Eric Clapton), and "Bringing It Back" (Kansas). In most cases (aside from Skynyrd's) I prefer Cale's much more laid-back versions, and I really like many of the other songs as well, such as "Call The Doctor" (a pure blues with perhaps the best use of horns on the album), "Magnolia" (probably the prettiest song on the album), the modest hit single "Crazy Mama" (which actually swings but in the slowest way imaginable), and "River Runs Deep" (I really dig this one's deep groove). I could name other songs as well, as this album doesn't really have any filler, but is rather an album you just play, listen to, and when it's over all too soon (the album is barely 30 minutes long), press play and listen to it all over again.

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