Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


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