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4.0 out of 5 stars J.J. Cale - A 3 star box set of 5 star music, 15 April 2013
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This review is from: Classic Album Selection (Audio CD)
J.J. Cale's five-disc box set, "Classic Album Selection" has been released via Mercury Records. The blurb tells you that this box set comes "in mini-LP paper sleeves, housed in an deluxe slipcase". What this means in English is that it comes in a stout cardboard casing with five card encased CDs. On Amazon's American site the info claims "a new 2013 remastered collection of 5 classic studio albums" although the set bears no documentary support for this and in any case Cale's albums always sounded great. If any reader has any further information on where the "remastering" took place a comment below would be much appreciated. The box set includes five of Cale's classic albums: Naturally (1972), Troubadour (1976), Shades (1981), Grasshopper (1982) and #8 (1983). This by any standards is a very puzzling approach to choosing Cale's output for presentation. It lacks in chronology and begs the question why these five albums? Irritatingly it misses such classics as 1974s "Okie" easily one of his best albums (and thus no "Cajun Moon" or "I've got the same old blues") plus the excellent "Really" (1972). Similarly if Cale's 1979s album "5" had been added this would have grouped his first eight Mercury albums and surely not added much to the price bearing in mind that the Rhino 10 set box of Joni Mitchell's output from 1968 to 1979 came in for about £2.60 per album. Frustrating is not the word for all this since it is hard to fathom the justifications for these arbitrary omissions which mean that the concept behind the set barely justifies 3 Stars.

If on the other hand this is your introduction to the great man's music the songs on these five records speak for themselves with clarity and will introduce a sly old groove so contagious that you will need musical inoculation to free yourself from its vice like grip. Let us dispense immediately with the obligatory Eric Clapton and Dire Straits references and state emphatically that John Weldon Cale is a true original and needs neither of the former artists to define his or categorize music. Indeed if forced with a choice this reviewer would happily take the single instance of prime Cale his debut "Naturally" over the collected output of Eric Clapton since the demise of Derek and the Dominoes and some of the later bluster produced by Knopfler and Co. So then onto the music of Oklahoma's favourite son J.J. Cale.

NATURALLY (1972) - A great debut album starting with the song immortalized by Lynyrd Skynyrd "Call me the breeze". It is a Cale manifesto so economical, laid-back and effortless with first class honours degree guitar picking and lyrics, which define the freedom of the great highway. It is easily matched by other highlights including the moody swamp blues of "Don't go to strangers" with a brilliant Cale vocal; wipe that tear from your eye with one of his best ballads "Magnolia" and recognise that the definitive version of "After Midnight: is to be located here. That said the standout out track on an album of stellar highlights is the pure country funk of the stunning "River runs deep"

TROUBADOUR (1976) - A superb album which sees Cale's songs start to creep over the 3 minute mark and includes one that lasts over four! The album most famous track is the Cale signature tune "Cocaine" although even better is the great live favourite "Ride me high" which shows that Cale's only comparable rootsy white funk musical equivalent was the late lamented Lowell George. Seek out also the fabulous jazzy blues of "Hold on" and what amounts to a Cale hard rock song the pounding "I'm a gypsy man". Finally what can you say about "Travellin Light" with its great guitar work and hypnotic percussion? Granted there is a very good rocking Clapton cover on "Reptile" but the masters' version of this great song is unsurpassable and should be sought out by any Cale "virgins" as an immediate download.

SHADES (1981) - For some this is viewed as a merely good Cale album as opposed to his usual meticulous standard. "Shades" is interesting for its more blues based approach to songwriting and for a little extra polish in the production. Repeated listens however reveal a little gem not least in the joy of the wistful "Wish I Had Not Said That", the rolling cover that is "Mama don't" and for those who want to know where the inspiration for Mark Knopfler's guitar style comes from should go no further than the superb opener "Carry on" which he later used to underpin his song "Border Reiver". Note also the present of two five minute plus instrumental songs the laidback blues of "Play my jack" a J.J. Cale master class in playing and the bluesy interplay of guitar and saxophone on "Cloudy Day"

GRASSHOPPER (1982) - This is Cale settling down to his later groove with the ever so slightly Ry Cooder sounding "City Girls" and a real standout track and perennial favourite "Devil in disguise". Sadly it also contains this reviewers least favourite Cale songs the rather silly "Does your Mama like to reggae" which has 1980s mistake written all over it, equally the instrumental "Dr Jive" is throwaway stuff. Luckily the good dramatically outweighs the bad not least the porch acoustic picking of "Drifters wife" and the social comment of "Downtown LA" which almost cross-fertilizes across the Atlantic with Knopfler's "Down to the Waterline". While the he lovely piano ballad "You keep me hanging on" is a bit of a departure from the usual Cale guitar format its excellent all the same.

#8 (1983) - There are parts of this album that lack the sparkle of earlier releases and sounds like Cale by numbers. In fact this is Cale's Reagan era social commentary album and in one sense was repeated for the Bush era by Ry Cooder in 2011's "Pull up some dust and sit down". The picture of Cale on the cover tells the story of album, which is one of the darkest and bleakest albums he has recorded. Song titles like "Loser", "People lie", "Unemployment" and the great duet with Christine Lakeland on "Money talks" create a mood of a Cale protest album. It is well worth a listen but not a completely essential part of the Cale canon of work. Interestingly he took a six-year recording hiatus after this album and probably avoided any danger (however slight) of recording one of those horribly 1980s over produced high-end treble monstrosities.

One reviewer has argued that "Cale is so objectively consistent that differences between albums in the long run boil down to which of the songs affect you on all days of the month and which of them affect you only on odd ones'. This is true but at the same time as the comments above show do not gain the impression that Cale's albums are a line of straight continuity without variance. The differences are subtle but they are differences all the same. J.J Cale remains one of the best recording artists of the past 40 plus years and all his albums either yield class and quality in parts or in an embarrassing abundance. The fact that he is probably best known from covers of his music by other musicians is something that sadly looks unlikely to change at this point in his long career. If this is to be the case treat him has your secret pleasure, with songs for every occasion and a nod tipped to the musical gods for placing one of their favourite sons amongst the midst of mere mortals.

3 stars then for the box set but five stars for its music.

Postscript. Just heard the terribly sad news that J. J Cale died on 26th July 2013 from a heart attack. Saying he will be sorely missed barely covers the loss of such a great musician. Godspeed John.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 May 2013 12:47:00 BDT
Victoria says:
Thanks for this review. I accidently stumbled across JJ Cale actually (Im only 36 although kind of irrelevant these days as good music knows no age limits!!) when my mum asked me to order her 'Shades.' Curious I put it on and it brought floods of child hood memories back from when she played her album on the record player in particular ' Moma dont...' So I found myself wanting so much more and ordered this box set. I cant wait to get it. Its the sort of music where I dont want to miss a single note. What a legend and Im only sorry it took all this time for me to 're-discover' the music of JJ Cale.

Posted on 12 Sep 2013 10:23:52 BDT
Sid Nuncius says:
Fine review, Rob. Thanks. And I agree - what an odd selection. Good albums, all of them, but no Okie? Dear me! I think I've got those same old blues again...


Posted on 6 Nov 2013 16:09:16 GMT
Ian Mac says:
This is a masterclass in how to write a record review, for which I thank you most sincerely. As I have all of JJ's albums, & love every one, allow me only to wonder how anyone could consider "Shades" to be a "merely good" album; I rank "Mama Don't" as perhaps the greatest rock n roll cut ever recorded & I play "Cloudy Day" whenever I'm in need of solace after a day of being battered by life's little storms. When I win the lottery, I'll park a pristine Airstream in the back forty, install some serious electronics & listen to dear departed JJ with enormous gratitude for the gifts he's bequeathed us.
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