Record Review - 7 June 10 2004

Ask anyone, even a fan, about Tulsa swamp-rocker J.J. Cale’s catalog, and you’ll likely get the same response: It all sounds the same. That’s not to say classics such as “Magnolia,” “Travelin’ Light,” “After Midnight,” “Call Me the Breeze” and the oft-covered “Cocaine” don’t have distinctive melodies. But it took other acts to refashion those songs before they were considered “hits,” and Cale’s own lazy, some might say snoozy, approach has been frustratingly repetitious on his 12 albums. Because of his signature hushed, creaky vocals and languidly strumming guitar, the feeling that nobody actually needs a dozen discs that seldom vary their formula — even if they remain unique next to everything else in the marketplace — has kept his faithful fans somewhat of a cult.

Which doesn’t mean this new release — his first studio project in eight years — is superfluous. With the luxury to record when the spirit moves him (that only someone receiving residuals from a Clapton cover can afford), Cale returns to his hometown and rounds up old friends, none younger than 60 (Cale himself is 66) to choogle through a baker’s dozen of new tunes.

Sure, the greasy shuffle of “One Step” could have been recorded for any previous disc, but not the violin and staccato marimba adding to the unexpectedly spry vibe. Nor the jaunty rhythm and horns on the offbeat “Chains of Love.” Listen to the unusually politically charged lyrics of “The Problem.” And the nifty mambo beat with mariachi brass on the appropriately entitled “Rio” hasn’t been heard from Cale before.

Like a great chef’s salad, the ingredients generally remain the same, yet the end result seems surprisingly fresh. That makes this — maybe after a greatest hits collection — a terrific place to jump into J.J. Cale’s murky waters.

His best album ever?

Probably not. But at his age, when most artists still recording don’t push the envelope, it’s as close to a revelation as anyone could expect.

J.J. Cale plays the Variety Playhouse Fri., June 11 at 8:30 p.m. $22.50. Cale also plays the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Thurs., June 10, with the Robert Cray Band. 8 p.m. $35.