November 6, 2010

30 in 30: Eric Clapton – Clapton [94/100]

By Daniel

Notes: “Travelin’ Alone” opens up the album with a tricky little blues run and organs, Clapton’s vocals are as inspired as ever, he may even be improving with age. Maracas and bongos give character to what might be a pretty sterile Lil’ Son Jackson cover without it. High hopes for the album after this opener. Arrangement is even slightly different from standard blues (that’s a good thing). “Rockin’ Chair” is a slower affair, giving homage to the original Hoagy Carmichael version of 1929. Brushes on snare, piano and clean electric guitar. Eric’s looking a bit older on this cover art but this is more of a morbidly humorous song than your typical blues. “Old rockin’ chair’s got me / cane by my side / Fetch me my gin, son, / ‘fore I tan your hide” Simple but good song. “River Runs Deep” opens up reminiscent of an old Carlos Santana song, with touches of modern strings. This one covers JJ Cale’s “River Runs Deep”, and the tone is fascinating, if you’ve heard Santana’s stuff around the Abraxas era you’ve got a good idea what’s going on here. Electric organ, vocal harmonies, latin blues riffs, even a couple of horn stings. Long chanted ending with some reversed guitar for good measure. An early favorite on the album. “Judgement Day” opens up with a gospel-blues sound, standard blues scale and harmonica, choral opening. Call-and-response chorus, as solid a harmonica solo as I believe you can really manage with the thing. I’m thrilled to hear four totally different approaches to the blues in four songs, people that say you can’t innovate in a genre like this have never given a master like Clapton a thorough listen. “How Deep Is The Ocean” opens with acoustic guitar, upright bass and piano. This covers Irving Berlin’s 1932 hit, and it’s appropriately modernized while respecting the original work, a solid cover that can be added to a long list of covers for this song. Absolutely love the horn solo over strings and guitar, gives the song a classic character, I’m really stopping to respect the amount of polish put into all of the songs so far. “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” is another 30s hit, this one by Fats Waller in 1935. Blues shuffle with tuba and horns, much more of an old-timey feel than the previous track. Quite a humorous track given the age. “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” is an interesting blend of slow standard blues with accordion, big punches of percussion, piano, and distorted electric guitar, great hat-tip to Little Walter. Subject matter is much more in line with typical blues, a solid song with interesting instrument choices to make it stand out. “That’s No Way To Get Along” is an offbeat blues shuffle with Clapton and JJ Cale on vocals, covering a bit more recent work in The Rolling Stones. Big band sound here, lots of instruments, drums are masterfully done. “Everything Will Be Alright” is a big band sound, everything tastefully done with regards to dynamics, the strings in particular are really solid through the solos and keep the song moving along at a good clip. Clapton’s electric guitar solo at the end is an understated beauty. “Diamonds Made From Rain” has more of a ballad sound than anything else, hard to categorize. Sheryl Crow joins us in the chorus, but Clapton’s singing is some of his best, it’s humbling to hear the man say he hates his singing, guess it happens to all of us. EC’s solo at the end is fantastic, the backup is tremendous, I totally understand why this was the first single off the album. “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” takes us back to the 30s, complete with Louis Armstrong-esque trumpet provided by Wynton Marsalis. This is not a new cover for Clapton, my dad recalls hearing him play this Fats Waller piece about five years ago. Tons of talent evident in the song, the piano, the shuffling drums, the vocals, a solid standout. “Hard Time Blues” has with a more upbeat sound than the name indicates, largely from the first mandolin appearance in the album. This is a fairly sparse song when you’re comparing it to the big band compositions of the last few tracks, acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano and drums. Despite it they do a good job of filling the soundstage, with a lovely distorted slide solo. This one’s not landing with the impact of the previous tracks, nothing wrong with it, just personal preference. “Run Back To Your Side” feels like an Allman Brothers song, largely because Derek Trucks joins on the slide guitar with a sound that’s inimitable. Clapton’s vocals have a totally different feel from the rest of the album, the whole thing feels pulled right out of the 70s in the best possible way. The rhythm is great, tapping my feet for the first time on the album, this is the feel of the Clapton songs I grew up listening to. For that matter, it feels like the Allman Brothers songs I grew up listening to, too. Great song, love it. “Autumn Leaves” should be a familiar title to any oldies fan, the Johnny Mercer standard has been covered by Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong among many others, and Clapton’s version opens up tremendously faithful to the original, tremendous work on the brushes, Clapton moves from tenor to baritone and gives the song the voice it needed, he’s a tremendously talented baritone. Strings in the background give the song edge and emotion, and piano gives it a somber tone. Clapton closes out the last two minutes of the album with a solo on a muted, bluesy electric guitar. This may well be the best solo on an album full of great solos, as it’s got the most soul, the most in-tune with what the sound needs. Album closes out with me wishing I had another 5 or 6 tracks to go.

Tone and Overall Sound: 20/20 Points. Clapton gives his strongest vocal performance in years, maybe ever, and at 65 the man’s showing no sign of slowing down or running out of source material.

Melody and Harmony: 20/20 Points. So many instruments had tremendous presence on the album, harmony was used effectively when it was used and wisely omitted when it wasn’t needed.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Couldn’t give the full 20 because while we had wonderful rhythm, we were working with a pretty limited set of instruments and timings throughout. This didn’t impact the enjoyment of the album, though.

Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. Everything on this front was done with love and effort evident. On high-end headphones the sound was a pleasure to listen to, all the instruments were crisp, even the work on the brushes didn’t go muddy as they have a tendency to.

Theme and Concept: 8/10 Points. Even though it’s an album largely made of covers, choosing the song does also give the artist control over the lyrics and theme. It’s in play here, though we covered a lot of ground that didn’t always meet in the middle.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. The album is largely a self-portrait of Clapton’s past, and a simple portrait of the man under stage lighting is quite effective. Good use of Rule of Thirds, text is legible with timeless serif style.

Total: 94/100 Points. This album was not only an absolute pleasure to listen to but an exciting introspective tour of the music Clapton grew up listening to, and taking the time to reinvent with the tools he’s picked up over the last fifty years. This one was nothing less than a privilege to listen to. Go get it.

Scoring Method: [pdf]
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
MOG 320kbps MP3 Stream

Well, this one’s going to be a tough act to follow, and for many of us this may be the last touch of the familiar for a while. We trade in the Les Paul for…something else. Who is Lazersword? I have no idea, but we’re listening to their self-titled album tomorrow. Have fun!