Long, established rock acts like Eric Clapton and Heart have nothing more to prove and have plenty enough hits that they really don’t need to make records anymore. They still do, of course, but nowadays will go four or five years (or more) before releasing a new album. This happens to be one of those infrequent times for both, which gives rise to the occasion of another New Release Roundup. Along with these two, there’s a couple more fresh shiny platters being offered by well-known old farts and for good measure I tossed in a record by a newer act whose introduction on this site has been a little overdue.
I get the feeling this is the last batch of new releases to get the “Quickies” scrutiny here before the Christmas shopping season releases come our way. Yikes, we’re talking about Christmas already!
Eric Clapton Clapton
The plainly-titled album seems to signal that this album is no side excursion, but a straight up representation of Eric Clapton music. Clapton’s range and genuine interests in so many style of music has made him something of a chameleon, at least since the 80’s. He is and always will be a bluesman at heart, but has veered into most everything from slick pop to R&B to fusion. Clapton, with its guest appearances by Wynton Marsalis and , signals he’s been in a New Orleans state of mind (his appearance on Dr. John’s from 2008 may have hinted at that). Certainly, his vocal turn on the old Crescent City jazz of “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” is convincingly New Orleans, but this album has many other stops along the way.
Sheryl Crow and longtime musical partnersand are also along for the ride, as Clapton runs through a program of originals and covers traversing folk, pop and various rootsy styles played mostly at slow or mid tempo. He’s well past the point in his career where he has to show off flashy guitar licks, and on this disc, he mostly settles for brief but efficient and delectable solos. But you’ll still know it’s him. Evergreen torch song standards like “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “Autumn Leaves,” get lazy blues-jazz workovers that showcases Clapton’s underappreciated crooning more than his laid back guitar. The original “Diamonds Made From Rain” with Crow (Youtube below) is one his better pop ballads in a long while, and one I could see being covered a lot itself.
The expert genre excursions aside, Clapton is still at his best when he plays the blues. The smoky Texas and Delta-inspired uneven boogie of “Traveling Alone” is like “Motherless Child” with a late-night groove. The rollicking “Rolling And Tumbling” hearkens back even further, to his Derek and the Dominos days, and the one place he actually does cut loose on his guitar. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Crazy About You Baby” is done up in that vintage, dirty Chess sound.
Coming out Tuesday, Clapton is his first album in five years, and thus a highly anticipated one. It goes a lot of different places but is bound together by a soothing, unforced disposition and unobtrusive, classic production. Clapton is usually at his very best making a record when he’s at a crossroads (heh) in his career. He’s nearly as good when he is not really trying to make a hit record and sound contemporary, but divulging in doing what he loves to do. Clapton falls into that latter category.
JJ Grey & Mofro Georgia Warhorse
When Alligator Records signed JJ Grey and Mofro and reissued his 2001 debut Blackwater in 2007 and then Grey followed up this and a couple other records with Orange Blossoms (2008), it was all I could do to withhold mentioning this sweet blend of Memhpis soul and north Florida swamp rock. Now that the next album Georgia Warhorse is out (released August 24), I can’t hold out any longer.
JJ Grey, who plays nearly all the instruments on Mofro, as well as composes and sings, is everything you could want from a soul specialist: a genuinely soulful and pliable singer, homegrown grooves that pull you to the dancefloor and a crunchy, dirty sound that pulls the best strains from 60s and 70s R&B and rock, and none of its fluff.
With his Florida swamp background ever present, this is soul as interpreted through the filter of Southern rock, and it’s easy to spot the connection between his music with The Black Crowes,(who provided slide guitar on “Lullaby”) and another underrated Jacksonville-based group by the name of . As before, the production is analog-warm and doesn’t give a damn about what the latest trends are. It does care a lot about rocking your soul. Grey still knows how to get funky like no one else from the Florida swamps can and keeps the crown with organic boogie numbers like “Diyo Dayo” and “Slow, Hot and Sweaty,” then hits you up with a shuffling, slippery rocker like “All” and “The Hottest Spot In Hell.” Even the slow tunes don’t lose any bit of feel and depth, as the acoustic guitar ballad “King Hummingbird” can attest. Grey doesn’t use horns as much as you think he might should, but when he does, it’s pure magic, although having the great reggae singer Toots Hibbert share lead vocals sure didn’t hurt for “The Sweetest Thing,” either (Youtube below).
JJ Grey & Mofro started out as a very good band; Georgia Warhorse catapults them—or should I say, JJ Grey—into the great category. Get this record, it may well be the best party disc to come out in twenty-ten.
John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension To The One
John McLaughlin, the godfather of fusion guitar, was such a pivotal figure of the genre in the late 60s and early 70s, it’s a little unbelievable that his more recent output usually goes fairly unnoticed. On the other hand, his newer stuff sounds like treading water compared to the frontier-expanding music he was making solo, with Miles and with Mahavishnu. To The One, released last April, is a continuation of the small group electric jazz-rock that McLaughlin first introduced in 1997’s The Heart of Things, a record that on the surface had everything going for it, but for some reason I can’t put my finger on, fell flat. His current fusion group, the 4th Dimension, carries over no members from The Heart of Things, but the feel is similar.
This time, though, the songs seem to have more drive and focus. McLaughlin backs up his stated indebtedness to the music of John Coltrane with a set of fusion originals that at their cores, mimic the modalities of Coltrane. That’s really nothing new for McLaughlin, but he’s more successful at it in an electric setting than he’s been in a while. Moreover, this is a great band he’s assembled: not only the keyboardist Gary Husband, electric bassist Etienne Mbappé and drummer Mark Mondesir are good individually, they play super together. There are some of those signature unison runs and counter rhythms and knotty interplay, but the 4th Dimension does so with more touches passes and less with the 90mph fastballs. There’s even real jazz underpinnings in selections like “Special Beings” and “Recovery.” In a more subtle way, McLaughlin accomplishes more. There’s still a lot of artistic life left in this fusion icon.
Dr. John and The Lower 911 Tribal
One of the few positive things to come from Katrina is that the tragedy has stirred Dr. John out of a slumber where he seemed to be mailing it in on many of his records. He’s not quite The Nite Tripper Dr. John again, but at least he’s trying to be, and his music pulls together all his blues, R&B, jazz and NOLA strengths and is played and sung with conviction and fire we hadn’t seen from him since the 70s. That’s what I’ve come away with on his last release, 2008’s, and Tribal, out since August 3, is more of the same.
“When I’m Right (I’m Wrong)” would have nestled in comfortably in his breakout In The Right Place LP, and he even performed that album’s producer Allen Toussaint’s social injustice statement “Big Gap.” For one last time, introduces fresh tunes from Bobby Charles, who passed away last January. This isn’t the star-studded affair of that prior album, save for–surprise!—Derek Trucks’ slide on “Manoovas”, but that also makes it a more consistent and a more thoroughly Dr. John record. The peaks aren’t as high, but this is a steady good record. The roll continues.
Heart Red Velvet Car
The first thing that’s evident from listening to Red Velvet Car is that in contrast to Clapton, the Wilson sisters are as rooted in the present-day sounds as they are to the music of the past, and maybe even more so. The second thing is that Ann Wilson’s voice is finally beginning to falter a bit: she’s lost some of her incredible range and there’s a residue of rasp in it that wasn’t there before. Those are two things that put this album below the level of their last one, 2006’s Jupiter’s Darling. On the other hand, Nancy’s power acoustic guitar remains in fine form, and she can still more than hold her own when battling crashing electric guitars for sonic space. What’s more, the Wilsons can still craft some tunes that might not reach the heights of “Magic Man,” Barracuda,” or evenbut the connection to those glory days is pretty strong on tunes like “WTF,” “Queen City,” and “Safronias Mark.” That easily puts Red Velvet Car a couple of levels above the 80s MOR pop excursions.
On sale since August 31, Red Velvet Car won’t make new Heart fans, but it should keep their existing ones reasonably happy.