Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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J.J. Cale

  • Naturally [Shelter, 1971] B
  • Really [Shelter, 1972] B
  • Okie [Shelter, 1974] B-
  • Troubadour [Shelter, 1976] B-
  • Special Edition [Mercury, 1984] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Naturally [Shelter, 1971]
After years of combatting pretentiousness we discover that unpretentiousness can be just as bad. These murmured blues meditations are so easy on the spirit that even though they have their charms they invite the mistrust of moralizers like myself--there's just too much talent here to justify such slight results. Or maybe there isn't enough talent to justify such minimal effort--only if all the songs were as absolutely beguiling as the side-openers, "Call Me the Breeze" and "Crazy Mama," would the lassitude affected by all hands be as comfortable for us as I'm sure it was for them. Push a little, fellas, it'll feel so good. B

Really [Shelter, 1972]
Cale outdoes such self-created white bluesmen as John Hammond by writing songs that are locked up in the conventions of the form, designed solely as carriers of pulse and mood. His slurred, whispering vocals and slurred, stuttering guitar are stylistic constants, and his lyrics aspire to the meaning-free universality of the traditional blues tropes and phrases. Mesmerizing, in its way. But the very best blues simply aren't meaning-free or locked up formally--John Hammond selects his repertoire for variety and interest, as does Lightnin' Hopkins, so why shouldn't Cale? Even if his style were as distinctive and forceful as any of dozens I could name, the fact that he consciously chooses his limits robs them of their natural aura. No surprise that the most gratifying tracks here break the mold with a little mystery--especially "Playing in the Streets," with its infusions from Vassar Clements. B

Okie [Shelter, 1974]
For J.J., this is adventurous stuff--"I Got the Same Old Blues" states his world view (you don't have to listen, just read the title), "Starbound" adapts his style to some (awful) space pop, and "The Old Man and Me" introduces a character whom he isn't making it with (at least he doesn't mention it). B-

Troubadour [Shelter, 1976]
The only time Cale ever seems to leave Tulsa is when he hies up to Nashville to cut another one of these albums. Doesn't he know that troubadours go places? B-

Special Edition [Mercury, 1984]
When he came up, Cale seemed one more carrier of the laid-back contagion, but fifteen years later, with the contagion dispersed into the adult-contemporary ether and its carriers in hock up to their souls, you have to respect him for the principled bluesman he's proven to be. Principled, but distinctly minor--only convinced narcoleptics want the complete set. The rest of us will be happy to stop at this compilation, though we'd be happier if it didn't pass up "Call Me the Breeze" and "I Got the Same Old Blues" for more up-to-date entries. B+