Roll On

JJ Cale

What is it with these old guys? Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones… Didn’t they get the memo that you can’t make good music after 40? That popular music acts and artists need to retire or just play Vegas after they reach a certain age? JJ Cale, the songsmith who wrote “Cocaine,” After Midnight” and “Call Me The Breeze,” is 70 and apparently missed the memo. And his CD Roll On, his first since 2004, might just be the best group of 12 songs you’ll hear all year. Let’s hear it for the old guys.

Opening with a swing 50s feeling “Who Knew,” we’re in the wry soundscape of this multi-instrumentalist master. Though the drums might be mixed a little too upfront (at least for my tastes), this first track is a fun boppin’ opener. The chugging, prog-like keys and drums of “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” had me from the get-go. The refrain: “you can put it right where the sun don’t shine” makes me laugh every time.

It becomes apparent early on that Roll On is one of those ‘albums’ (and I do mean albums) where the tunes are sequenced in such a way that the music opens up as you probe deeper. By the time we are going “Down to Memphis,” things have settled in — guitar, drums, keys, the vocals — and the whole groovin’ amalgamation is like a pastoral painting. As Cale played most of the instruments here, it’s no wonder it all congeals the more you get into it.

There’s a fumbly piano all over “Former Me,” wacky cat-wailing pedal steel on “Strange Days,” a close approximation to Ruben Blades at his best on “Cherry Street,” and the absolutely perfect “Fonda-Lina.” Cale has this way of mixing every instrument — guitar, drums, piano, all of it — so not only do you hear everything perfectly, but they make the most impact. And just when you think you’re hearing a little too much of a Dire Straits-vibe (ironic as Mark Knopfler sites Cale as one of his influences), Cale dips things with some inspired flipped instrumentation midway through. Listen to “Fonda-Lina” if you want a master course in songcraft and arrangement.

How anybody can make such a wry case for his demise, I don’t know, but if you get through “Leaving In The Morning” without laughing and crying at the same time, you’re not human. It’s rare, especially these days, for me to hear the guitar where the economy of the notes chills me as much as much as the dexterity of Cale’s fret. “Oh Mary” is a fun little number, maybe not one of the best tunes, but it does feature some great, way-back-in-the-mix Walt Richmond piano. “Roll On,” which features cohort Eric Clapton (Cale and Clapton collaborated on the 2006 album The Road To Escondido), is a little too commercial for my tastes, and while it may get all the play and press, it might be the weakest tune here.

The CD ends with “Bring Down The Curtain.” With deceptive drumming that actually seems to be a half a beat behind the guitars, Cale’s voice — not the most perfect of instruments even at his best — is perfect here. It not only does this track close Roll On, it could easily end Cale’s career…or restart a new one. And what better beginning than Roll On — a CD of subtle, tightly constructed songs, great playing, and a wry humble could-be-this, might-be that outlook from a man who might be into his seventh decade but is just as viable as ever.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.

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