To hear J.J. Cale tell it, a lot of work goes into making his music sound like no work went into it at all. Well, throughout his long career, he’s certainly succeeded. When you listen to Cale, you envision someone sitting on a back porch or on a bar’s lonely stage, singing some songs while someone just happened to have a tape recorder on hand. It’s smooth and more than a little dusty; the very essence of relaxed rock ‘n’ roll.
Rewind sheds at least a little light on the work that went into producing Cale’s unassuming roster of albums. Culled from tapes that had been in the possession of Audie Ashworth, Cale’s producer for many years, Rewind‘s songs stem from Cale’s tenure at Shelter and Mercury Records. They’re pretty much what you’d expect in terms of J.J. Cale songs: easygoing, patient, and straightforward.
What’s surprising about Rewind, considering that Cale usually sticks to his own compositions, are the covers of other artists’ songs. Cale’s usually the recipient of such honors, his songs having been tackled by the likes of Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, the Band, and Captain Beefheart. In this case, though, the idea of Cale recording covers is a bit of a red herring. Cale doesn’t go for deconstruction or radical reworking; the songs he picks are pretty close to his style to begin with, so he doesn’t tinker with them much. In the case of Clapton’s “Golden Ring”, it’s only fair since Clapton sold a lot of records by doing very little to Cale songs like “Cocaine” and “After Midnight”. In the case of Waylon Jennings’ “Waymore’s Blues” and Leon Russell’s “My Cricket”, Cale plays it straight, (although his version of “My Cricket” has, surprisingly, glossier production and loses the cricket sound effects). He also tries to play it straight with Randy Newman’s “Rollin’”, keeping the signature piano melody; however, Newman’s vocals and Ragtime/turn-of-the-century Germany style are pretty hard to replicate, so Cale’s version, by necessity, differs a little.
As for Cale’s own songs, most of which he said simply didn’t fit on the albums he was recording at the time, there are some good tracks here. It would have been a shame for them to remain unreleased even if nothing runs the risk of making you re-evaluate Cale in any way. “Seven Day Woman” and “Ooh La La”, (both showcasing the songwriting and background vocals of Christine Lakeland), are definite highlights, while “My Baby and Me” is a solid pedal steel-accented tearjerker. In some cases, these songs feel like demos, but the playing is first rate, with top Nashville session players and more well-known folks like Richard Thompson, Spooner Oldham, and Jim Keltner sitting in.
In the end, Rewind is, like nearly all of Cale’s work, a pleasant listen. Like Mark Knopfler, (who counts Cale as an influence), you know what you’re going to get: warm tone and a relaxed mood. Three or four of Rewind‘s songs may rank with Cale’s top tier work, while some of the others, such as the covers, count as curiosities.