Like 461 Ocean Boulevard, but with better singing, Eric Clapton’s Old Sock is similarly thin on original songs, swerves into an amiable island-inflected vibe, and never gets too far outside of its super-mellow box.
It’s also similar in that it features a stellar band — this time including keyboardist Chris Stainton, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Willie Weeks — but rarely asks anything more of them other than to be utterly, sometimes cloyingly tasteful. This is not a new complaint, of course. Away from the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and Blind Faith, Clapton’s solo career can’t often be accused of challenging musical perceptions. The same holds true on Old Sock, which becomes another unobtrusive stroll of a recording — right down to the seemingly hand-made, vacation-style self portrait on its cover.
Fans of his 1970s solo albums will find much to like, if not enough to necessarily differentiate Old Sock — at least on the surface. That starts with a series of reggae-fied moments — from Clapton’s update of Taj Mahal’s “Further On Down the Road,” to the Peter Tosh composition “Till Your Well Runs Dry,” to a spectacular cover of Otis Redding’s “Your One and Only Man,” to his impossibly cheerful original “Every Little Thing.”
As expected, he makes a detour into the blues, taking on both Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” and Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues,” the last of which finds Clapton collaborating again with his former Blind Faith bandmate Steve Winwood. “Gotta Get Over,” the second of two new songs on Old Sock, reanimates the snarling groove of his Dominoes album with Duane Allman. Clapton even hooks up once more with long-time confederate JJ Cale (“After Midnight,” “Cocaine”) on “Angel.”
It’s comfy and lived in, right down to his homemade self-portrait on the cover.
That said, not everything feels rote on Old Sock, due March 12, 2013, from Clapton’s Bushbranch Records. There’s something new in Clapton’s genteel embrace of standards like Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” which very much recall his contemporary Paul McCartney’s throwback successes from 2012′s Kisses on the Bottom. Careful liner-note readers will recall that album also featured Clapton on one track, and McCartney returns the favor by joining in on a saucy and ingratiating “All of Me.”
More particularly, the guitarist Clapton has become, beginning with his late-1990s effort Pilgrim, a vastly improved vocalist. No matter the material, Clapton’s new-found commitment to conveying a lyric remains the most interesting thing about his more recent recordings — and Old Sock is no different.
Content once just to growl and shout, Clapton has discovered a rich complexity of vocal sounds, and his albums — timid though they may often be conceptually, with nowhere near enough solo space — have become much better for it. He can, and you hear this all over Old Sock, enliven most anything nowadays. You’re just left wishing Clapton put all of that to better use sometimes.