|JJ Cale – 1974|
Whew, how about that August? Looks like this year we needed more of a break from some of its dog days than others. Reflecting on this most summery of months, it seems that most of what we try to do, is use our economy of thought/time to maximize pockets of enjoyment that summer provides. Cool down a bit by the beach, hunker down under an umbrella while you run to and from an air conditioned destination, refresh yourself momentarily and brace yourself for the next ride. It seems like the environment conditions you to trust your willingness to endure certain things in exchange for a respite or exhilaration of sorts that pays off two-fold. After a while once your thought process is thoroughly conditioned, then you can just enjoy the days that seem longer and the effortless good times. How does all of this exactly relate to Mr. Cale? Its the economy, stupid.
|JJ and his Harmony Guitar|
While classic rockers were going extremely heavy, Prog artists going extremely complex, and singer-songwriters extremely insular, here was JJ going extremely laid-back. This laid-back sound that drew on the breeziness of country, rockabilly, blues, and jazz traditions was important to JJ. He himself realized he wasn’t much of an ambitious guitarist, what he was, was a genuinely ambitious tinkerer, one willing to sacrifice flashy prowess for the sake of the song. His first album 1971’s Naturally which started off with, of all things, the sound of a drum machine introduced you to this economy of sound. “Call Me the Breeze”, which later on was covered to great success by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then reconfigured by Clapton to be “Lay Down Sally“, formed the thesis for what became JJ Cale’s musical experiment. Its a sound, that you can tell is uniquely “Southern” but one that is airy enough to stay in your craw much longer. Its such a simple chord progression, and such a barely-there vocal that it inspires one to just tap along, just so, with it.
This lightness in mood, perfect to counteract the heaviness of Summer, music, or life in general (when need be), gets presented in different facets by JJ. As if, to prove Teddy Roosevelt’s adage of “speaking softly, and carrying a big stick” JJ negotiates peace of thought, by using his inquisitive nature to experiment with different variations on this breezy sound. Throughout Naturally there are lovely country jazz ballads like “Magnolia“, New Orleans-style funk grooves like “After Midnight“, and drum machine-led riverboat barge weepies like “Crying Eyes” that serve to display the many facets of such a peaceful sound. Its a sound that understatedly JJ came to because he knew his limits. Rather than oversing, he would overdub his whisper quiet voice when need be, rather than play more notes than needed to come in over his drum machine or his accompaniment, he would play less notes and work on his guitar tone a bit more (with pedals or modifications on his beat up guitar).
This debut album afforded him some modicum of success, probably more than he wanted, but it afforded him some luxuries that he would be able to exploit a bit for his next album Really. 1973’s Really, found him recording at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, this enhanced studio environment allowed him the luxury of actually having a full human rhythm section for once. With a proper band in tow now, JJ explored even more atmospheric guitar sounds and grooves. This album would be a bit of misstep, JJ was mostly using it as a basis to see how to work in a “proper” studio environment, but it had its share of great tracks. The ingenious Reggae-influenced “Right Down Here“, the barrelhouse piano dance groove of “Ridin’ Home” that Leon Russell was mining, and “Going Down’s” spelunking Southern electric rock sound were some highlights. However, as a whole, the main highlight was JJ’s refusal to really change much of his vocal sound and to take his guitar more into the spotlight. Its this refusal, that although you knew what to expect from JJ, you sorta didn’t know what kind of song was coming up next.
This gentle disequilibrium forcing you to pay attention to catch distinct changes finally came into their full, stable and vibrant fruition in JJ’s next album, and my album of the month, 1974’s Okie. Okie starts off with the sly laughter of JJ in “Crying“. Now twice as loud, and that much sparer than the previous Reggae-influenced track “Right Down Here”, this is the sound of JJ showing you the result of his experiment with dub. As the album plays on, starting with “Starbound”, you here the culmination of his laid-back sound. Laid-back doesn’t always means aloof, in JJ’s case it means grace. Listen to “Starbound’s” wonderous phased sound, presenting a country man’s own sonic exploration of space. Dreamy in ways that few bands let alone other artists could be, it showed that JJ wasn’t tied to a specific sound.
“Rock and Roll Records” is the same ole JJ sound, but its never quite boring is it? You notice he added even more overdubs to his voice and guitar, rather than sing louder. Somehow, you let this slide because the groove is genuinely easy to digest. Its comfort food of the richest order. Then you get taken to the river with downright lean “The Old Man and Me”. Can you count how many notes JJ actually plays, or how many instruments there are actually in the song? You probably won’t find anywhere, outside of Joao Gilberto’s records, a better balance of saying so much with so few tools. This is a song that if you could feel the bass rhythm course through your body, you’d swear it match the heartbeat tempo you’ll bump down to, when you hear it play. There’s a lot of meaning in what JJ is vocally stretching out as well, if you’re willing to listen.
Then skip on over to “Cajun Moon”, as muscular as a southern groove you’ll find on any record. JJ buries his guitar way low in the mix, only popping up fully here and there, like some catfish finding a great spot to poke its head out for a bit, only and just only, when JJ’s more spirited non-whispered vocals let him do so. Continue your skip over to “Anyway the Wind Blows“, another unrelenting dance tapper. Its a toe tapper of the slyest order, so economical in its groove, its the sonical rockin’ chair swaying to and fro on a shaded porch, on a hot-ass day.
JJ provides you country comfort that’s genuinely rude to refuse. The country comfort continues, with the heartfelt “Precious Memories“, a twilight ballad for a time that exists when you take the time to relax a bit and linger. The instrumental “Okie” is a beautiful acoustic country meander that for once lets JJ showcase his actual playing chops, and he does so in the most humble fashion (quick and to the point). Then the album finishes with the greasy, greasy lovelorn rocker “I Got the Same Old Blues” a deep southern rock track later covered by Skynyrd and Captain Beefheart showing a nifty dual piano interplay, that gets interrupted by JJ’s almost reptilian slide guitar here and there, which presents yet again another groove that’s hard to forget.
You know, for me, this will probably be the hardest album to quantify why its so darn great. Its easy to see how genuinely influential it is with other musicians and how important it is in the grand scheme of music at large. However, unless you come into it a bit prepared you won’t fully appreciate its charms. Then again, I might not be giving JJ his due respect. You know what, I fully expect that there will be something that charms you about Okie, and in due course, once your brain says you know what I kinda want to go back and revisit JJ, either in this album or in his other work, then you’ll see what I’m talking about. Its a subtlety that only gets better with age, and with reflection or reintroduction, and fuck it I’m not the only one who sees this, but its one that is better heard than read. Anyway, who has time to read some hagiography when y’all can go out on the porch, listen to “Okie” and then go take a nap before a crisper fall breeze sends you back in…I’d think JJ would have appreciated that more. Of course, if you like what you hear you could continue with JJ’s equally awesome Troubadour. Then, yes, do take a nap.
– 1972: Naturally
– 1973: Really
– 1974: Okie
– 1976: Troubadour
– 1979: 5
– 1982: Grasshopper
– 2009: Roll On
Bonus stuff, short JJ Cale doc…
Brilliant performance later in the game…