J.J. Cale: To Tulsa and Back

J.j. Cale
To Tulsa and Back

The problem with this album is not that everybody who worked on it is more than 60 years old; heck, it’s not even really a problem that J.J. Cale brags about that in the album’s press release. I think it’s cool. This is him going back to Tulsa, where he began, and hooking up with a lot of his old buddies, some of his earliest bandmates and allies, guys who still hang around the peripheries or are making it work full-time or guys with day jobs and a new old night-time hobby. So it’s a compelling little storyline, and it works.

The problem with this album is not that the songs on it occasionally sound like they were performed by people who were all more than 60 years old. Sure, things like “Blues for Mama” drag along lazily-but it’s a lovely sort of lazy, and it fits the needs of the song, which is a blues waltz veined through with the kind of sadness that allows a resigned chuckle: “It just seems wrong / To sing this song / Cause she’s not here / Where she belongs.” And maybe “Homeless” takes its time, but that goes well with its gentle inquiry into the nature of poverty: “I’m not a homeless man / I’m a gypsy by trade / And I’m traveling this land.” After the kind of career he’s had, it’s okay for Cale to take it easy every once in a while.

The problem with this album is not a problem with pace. Because there are plenty of uptempo songs, like “Rio” with its surprising Latin soul-horns (more salsa maybe than actually Brazilian), and like the careening “Motormouth” which sounds Very Much Like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde Era, except with a rocked-up violin solo. There are just as many midtempo bouncy songs here as is perfect. I’m feeling “Chains of Love” because after its strange New Orleans-y opening it turns into two-beat Memphis soul with ska touches. Which is kind of cool, especially from a bunch of old guys. Cale has always been a lyricist first, and “Chains of Love” has the kind of simple-but-intriguing lyrics that Otis Redding used to murder: “Ain’t no way / I am told / No you cannot / Break the hold / Chains of love / Won’t let me be / They keep haunting / Haunting me.”

The problem with this album is not the lack of well-written songs. Cale has always been everyone’s favorite unknown songwriter for a reason, and that is because he’s got sly wit to spare but he never gets showoffy about it. “My Gal” is a perfect opener, because it’s a perfect song about a perfect woman: “Now my gal don’t like them red red roses / She don’t like perfume / Now my gal ain’t got no fancy notions / She just likes to make love all night / And sleep all afternoon.” And then the wah-wah guitar kicks in and they add a few more layers of ambient strums; after a minute and a half, the horns kick in. Man, I love these horns. The horns are definitely NOT the problem with this album.

The problem with this album is not that Cale sounds like Mark Knopfler when he sings, because I loved Dire Straits all the way through and including Love Over Gold. It’s pretty clear that Knopfler learned a lot of his stuff from the early Cale albums anyway, so the egg has now come back around to show where the chicken came from. “New Lover” would have fit in very nicely on Making Movies, and “Fancy Dancer” must have gone back in a time machine to teach all of AAA radio how to exist, low-key charm and white-dude groove in much abundance.

But, unlike a lot of AAA-focused music, the problem with this album is not that it is too cutesy for its own good. Cale has a way of undercutting everything soppy or precious with a cutting phrase or a sneaky ambiguity that makes it go down smoother. “These Blues” steals Stuff Smith’s violin thang and some Fats Waller piano thangz and those jazz drums that everyone uses, the ones with the brushes, and you kind of want to hate it-but you can’t hate anything this zen about the nature of American music. Because it just is what it is, a song that lays everything out for you after the stunning spidery guitar solo, with Cale croaking truth to power: “The blues is not a song you sing / It is a way of life / I hung around those barrooms, gal / Almost all my life / The men, they all are gamblers / They take all they can use / So if I find no peace of mind / I’ll settle for these blues.”

The problem with this album is not Cale’s politics, because not only does he have the great “Homeless” but also a devastating ecology tune called “Stone River” and another song called “The Problem”, where he breaks it all down for us all Riddler-style: “Have you heard the news that’s going round you? / The man in charge has got to go / Cause he dances round the problem, boy / And the problem is the man in charge, you know.” Oh snap.

And the problem with this album is not that this isn’t piano-driven Britpop or that Timbaland didn’t produce it or that it’s not in Icelandic with sampled vacuumcleaner noises or that it’s not grime straight from the garage or that there’s no famous backup singers or that it’s not screamed by 20-year-olds yet to earn their tattoos. The problem isn’t that it’s not fashionable to make J.J. Cale albums in the year 2004, because that in itself is so outlandishly unfashionable that it’s incredibly hip. The wheel comes around, kids, Cale is one of the good guys, doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of him, he’s spitting mad fire here.

I guess I’m still looking for the problem with this album.