Rewind: Unreleased Recordings
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed November 14, 2007, 06:40 AM CST
Rewind: Unreleased Recordings, the latest offering from J.J. Cale, contains a series of outtakes that he recorded between 1973 and 1983 at Crazy Mama’s, the basement studio of Audie Ashworth, his longtime producer and friend. When Ashworth died in 2000, his widow turned over a box of tapes to Cale for his perusal, and this collection of 14 previously unreleased songs is the result.
Cale has never been a very prolific artist, and he often has gone several years without releasing any new music. His warm, slinky, and swampy style of guitar playing has not changed much, if at all, in the nearly 40 years that have passed since he issued Naturally, his most popular album. Then again, there was no need to alter his approach because his distinctive mannerisms emerged fully formed. Naturally contained many of his most popular songs, including After Midnight and Call Me the Breeze, and it has defined Cale’s musical universe ever since. In many ways, none of the dozen or so albums that he recorded in Naturally’s wake have done anything to expand or improve upon what is often considered his most perfect musical statement. His lazy grooves and understated rhythms continue to speak of a world that has long gone by, a time when things moved slower, and there was nothing more pressing to do than sit on the porch and sing the blues.
In an industry dominated by personality and excess, Cale quietly — and almost anonymously — has continued to release albums at his own pace, touring whenever the mood has struck him. His reluctance to work simply for its own sake is perfectly illustrated by a conversation Cale recalled with Ashworth: "He’d say, ‘John, we need a new album.’ I’d say, ‘What was wrong with the last one?’"
Cale obviously has bought hook, line, and sinker into Neil Young’s assertion that "it’s all one song." Given the amount of recycled dross that is foisted on the record-buying public year after year, it would be a good thing if more artists showed Cale’s restraint.
Traipsing through Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is very similar to looking through a collection of 35-year-old photographs. Consequently, it isn’t likely to win Cale any new fans, though, by the same token, it also isn’t likely to alienate his loyal followers. Even more than most of his endeavors, Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is so laid back that it almost doesn’t exist. One can listen to its cuts, all of which are pleasant, and then wonder what has just been heard. Sounding as if Brian Eno had been transplanted to the Deep South, these songs are akin to ambient excursions that float down the center of a slowly drifting river. Upon close examination, the tunes are all soulful, relaxed, and sufficient unto themselves. There are no jarring notes, clumsy lyrics, or bad melodies. All of the tracks are understated and removed from a universe full of worries and cares. Aloof and transparent, the music is truly ego-less: the personality and concerns of Cale, the man, are nowhere in evidence. There are glimpses of a presence that insinuates itself between the beguiling and warm notes of guitar and bass. One can sense a heartbeat in the soporific percussions. Cale is there, and then he disappears.
Cale’s career and persona are truly unique in popular music. Like J.D. Salinger, Cale has nothing he feels compelled to say or communicate to the world at large. Resistant of fame — he has stated, "if people don’t know how I look, I can go get a sandwich at Denny’s" — Cale has managed to eschew the dark side of living as an artist in the public eye. He is a man who seems baffled by the industry, and he has chosen to exist on his own terms, without the bitter compulsions and recriminations of, say, Bob Dylan. As such, Cale’s performance on Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is as compact, fluid, and minimal as its songs will allow.
In the end, one’s enjoyment of Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is entirely dependent upon one’s thoughts about Cale’s other works. Does the world need these songs? No. Is the world diminished in any way by their release? No. Each of the Rewind: Unreleased Recordings’s 14 tracks is an excursion through and rumination upon his already existing style. And, they all sound just fine. Naturally. ½
Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box