You have to love a good bombastic in your face opener don’t you? preferably featuring a big fanfare, explosions, shouted expletives and sound FX. Yeah? well, look elsewhere tonight friend. Go in peace.
What you really need is a bit of muttering about ‘Here’s another of your old rock and roll favourites; shuffle on down to Broadway’ over a primitive yet-clapped-out drum machine and a dollop of the most deceptively laid-back talent that was ever doled out from on high, welcome to ‘Call Me The Breeze’, welcome to J.J Cale Naturally, welcome to happiness.
J.J Cale is one of the sounds of my childhood, I just seem to have absorbed his music along the way – I can hear a track of his that I haven’t knowingly heard in 30 years and still be able to sing along. His sound is utterly timeless, Naturally was released in 1972* it could have been released yesterday, or tomorrow there are no clues in there at all. I know you may have Mr Cale pegged as a purveyor of a certain style of brightly laid-back country rock but there is so much more to him, and Naturally, than that.
But let’s do the Greatest Hits first, well in a cover-version style, that is. ‘Call Me The Breeze’ was zapped erect by Lynyrd Skynyrd and taken for a fast ride down the freeway, I prefer J.J’s languid no-sweat version. It’s interesting too because it does shift along at a pretty nimble pace, there are some very tasty licks being flicked here but his voice gives the whole a deceptive impression of slowness and calm. The other big cover is ‘After Midnight’, picked up and made a big hit by Eric Clapton in 1970, which gave Cale the money and the impetus to make Naturally. Cale’s version of ‘After Midnight’ is far slower, much more of a whispered come on in a partner’s ear:
After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang out
After midnight, we’re gonna chug-a-lug and shout
We’re gonna cause talk and suspicion
After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang out
After midnight, gonna shake your tambourine
After midnight, it’s gonna be peaches and cream
Who could resist a bit of tambourine shaking in the wee small hours? I have to say I’m a little bit partial.
What I wasn’t ready for on Naturally was just how damn funky it is. Check out the awesome strut of ‘Woman I Love’, which sounds indecently like Stevie Wonder thanks to a some wonderfully hefty brass**, I defy you not to at least wiggle your shoulders seductively to this one. Ditto ‘Nowhere To Run’, which sounds like a rural Stax knock-off with a horn chart that Sam and Dave would have given their left legs for. Double ditto ‘Bringing It Back’, another great sprinter of a track.
But if your tastes run to the delightfully slothful I would usher you towards the gorgeous triumvirate of ‘Call The Doctor’, ‘River Runs Deep’ and ‘Magnolia’, all of which are stunners in their own right. The first is catapulted (slowly) to true greatness by some slo-mo mariachi horns and Cale’s best minimal-as-hell guitar solo – ‘A shady lady took all my bread / Ravished my body, lord, and messed with my head’, I feel your pain J.J. My favourite track on the LP is ‘River ..’, possibly my fave J.J Cale track period – I struggle to articulate why, something about the tempo, the unusually assertive vocal and the overall slightly dampened sound of the drums; you can hear Dire Straits being born in the opening 4 bars. Whereas ‘Magnolia’ is just exquisite.
Part of the man’s magic is the way his music seems to sidle up to you and tap you, gently, on the shoulder. Which is very much in keeping with everything you ever hear and read about Cale’s unassuming modesty, I love the story that some of his neighbours only found out that he was a famous musician after his death – they had apparently thought he was a retired truck driver.
I shan’t go on, basically I’m a huge fan of Naturally, although I don’t seem to give it the number of plays it deserves. Part of the magic of the album, and the beauty of the medium, is the overall warm, late night sound Cale and Audie Ashworth give the record – despite all the little shifts of style and emphasis, a real coherence. All this and only two songs touching down at over 3 minutes long.
I only own this one and Troubadour, one day I will get around to tracking the other records down but, hey, there’s no sense working up a sweat over it. I will leave you with a snippet of Cale’s wisdom taken from an interview I read with him^ about all his records sounding the same:
Yeah, I don’t know how to do it any other way. I tried. My critics go, “Well, everything you do sounds the same,” and I think, “Well, I need to invent something different from what I do.” So I tried, and it always sounded like crap. So I just keep doing the same thing.
*a year of celebration and joy for our species, for lo, in Somerset was born 1537 and all was good in the world.
**who remain totally uncredited on the LP, which isn’t right.
^which I exited and can’t find again to credit it properly. Soz.