Sound: Eric Clapton's latest endeavor feels more relaxed and satisfying than many of his other recent releases, thanks in part to the addition of songwriter and friend J.J. Cale. The two singer-guitarists work exceptionally well together, producing an array of mellow, laid-back tunes on The Road To Escondido. While fans of Clapton's classic Cream days might not find the material as passionate as they'd like, you can still expect memorable and beautifully executed solos in almost every track.
Probably the most significant aspect of The Road The Escondido is that it's the first full-length album shared by Clapton and Cale, best known for writing hits like Cocaine and After Midnight. Cale has spent most of his life behind the scenes, so the opportunity to hear both his vocals and guitar work is long overdue. The liner notes, unfortunately, do not list which singer/guitarist is doing which solo, which would have been a great addition to understanding the stylistic differences between Cale and Clapton.
There are few exceptional tunes on the record, most notably Anyway The Wind Blows and Don't Cry Sister. They stand out for more than just the unique solos that are laid down and wouldn't even need sleek guitar riffs to make them solid songs. Anyway The Wind Blows has almost a train-like rhythm for the duration, but it also includes probably around 10 mini-solos, all of which are done in completely different styles -- a few blues-driven and one even with a more Middle Eastern flair. Don't Cry Sister has a more groove-oriented rhythm like Forever Man, and recalls some of Clapton's strong solo work in the '80s.
The one setback that the CD suffers from is the hushed vocals that both Cale and Clapton deliver. At times you kind of wish Clapton would break out in a cry like he once did in Bellbottom Blues, but for pretty much the whole CD Clapton remains restrained in his vocal delivery. What might be lacking in the vocal area is made up in full with the flawless solos by the two guitar aficionados. // 9
Lyrics: The lyrics do stick to a more blues-based format, with a more straightforward, repeating approach to the verses and choruses. Most of the songs on the CD are written by Cale and not Clapton, and it's nice to see that the lesser-known guitarist has his time in the spotlight. The only drawbacks are that the quieter vocals don't always allow you to hear every line and there aren't accompanying printed-out lyrics in the liner notes.
Don't Cry Sister is one of those blues tunes that are honest and have few frills, which is a nice throwback to the lyrics of blues greats like John Lee Hooker. Cale writes, Woke downhearted and you feel so bad; Somebody wants something of nothing you had; Love don't come too easy, you see; A little bit of you and a little bit of me. Some listeners might find these lyrics too bland, but they actually demonstrate that Cale is sticking true to the blues genre.
The track Anyway The Wind Blows is actually one of the best-written songs on the latest record, primarily for the clever way that Cale shapes many of the verses. In one verse Cale writes, Guitar player been all around the world; But he can't play a lick for looking at the girls; One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; Well, you'd better change your ways or you won't get to heaven. He goes on to talk about a bow-legged woman and a guy named Fat Jack, which continues to give the song a novel quality that stands out from the bunch. // 8
Overall Impression: The latest work from Clapton and Cale may not appeal to harder rock fans, not only because it not only has a more adult-contemporary genre feel, but also because it delves into the country genre. The Road To Escondido is far from being a country CD, however, and has a lot to offer in terms of impressive guitar solos, organ/piano work from the late, great Billy Preston, and a nice touch of harmonica from Taj Mahal.
Cale has earned the opportunity to display his talent as a guitarist and songwriter, and this side project succeeds in that mission. While the songs may not ever reach the classic status of Cale's famous Cocaine, they are pleasingly infectious. And if the CD does anything, it will hopefully give a wider audience a much-needed introduction to the work of J.J. Cale. // 9