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


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 20

Beth Rowley – Little Dreamer (2007)

Born to missionary parents in Lima, Beth Rowley is a woman of the world who has paid her dues. She started at the very bottom, navigating the Bristol music scene, playing in pubs and clubs to those who don’t necessarily want to listen. She also studied under Soul singer, Carleen Anderson (who spent years in Paul Weller’s band) and also, as a schoolgirl, provided backing vocals for Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias. Excuse my cynicism, but if that isn’t paying your dues, I’m not sure what is.

The point being this – Rowley has a thickened skin because she’s not one of those artists who sang karaoke on The X Factor then became a star. She’s roamed the open-mic nights, packed her own gear into the boot, played the job-gigs and used such experiences to work out who she is and what she does. She’s also soaked up a wealth of musical and cultural influences on her passage to this record – primarily Blues, Soul, Gospel and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum. You can tell – and some would hold this against her – that she has swallowed the posthumous Eva Cassidy output too, though this makes the whole concept more charming for me.

Some of the highlights include Rowley’s take on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a song first recorded by Gospel Blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. There is a sincere warmth in her voice, and it feels like she means it when she sings “And if I should die / And my soul becomes lost / Then I know it’s / Nobody’s fault but mine”. It’s pretty damn convincing, and the music doesn’t intrude. The other cover, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released borders on a little giddy for the thematic nature of the song, but it’s still charming with its reggae slant.

The main issue here is the safe production. Some of these tracks could really soar at the risk of making some Radio 2 listeners spill their tea, and it’s a shame that the production team decided not to gamble. It doesn’t take much away from the song-craft though, or how well Rowley and Ben Castle (yes, son of Roy) have put their influences in a blender and spilt them all over this lovely record. It’s certainly refreshing to see a young artist realise such a traditional, authentic sound. Beth Rowley is certainly a great Soul singer – not at all an impersonator or imposter.

The two stormers on the record are Sweet Hours & Oh My Life. You can tell that she’s the daughter of missionaries by the fervour in her voice, and her vocal performance is no better across the record than on these two tracks. I’ve read reviews that criticise Rowley’s menace when singing these deeply spiritual songs, but for me her pitch is where it needs to be – somewhere between lost in music and gentle thunder. Again, I must touch on the fact that the production is so safe that it almost prevents Rowley from striding out of the shadows of her influences and assuming her own identity. I fear that this will forever be a bargain bin purchase for middle-of-the-road oh isn’t that lovely music (un)listeners, and it’s so much better than that.

Or, certainly it should be.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

7/10

Top track trio:

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

Sweet Hours

Oh My Life


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 14

Gomez – Bring It On (1998)

I was visiting a mate who I was playing in a band with at the time, and he lived right by a huge Tesco store that had very recently become Southport’s first 24-hour supermarket. I was sixteen years old, and my musical interest was sparked. We decided to walk down there late one night and check out the records – it was only a short wander through a few back lanes and alleys, through a derelict carpark and then into the lights. Those were the days when supermarkets were like record shops – and I had this strange compulsion to buy this unusual looking album on the shelf. Something about the artwork seemed to swallow me whole. I just knew, somehow, from the artwork, that I would like the music. Gut instinct is a curious thing, isn’t it?

The album was Bring It On by Gomez, and I had no idea at the time how odd this compulsion would turn out to be. Buying it purely on instinct, I had no idea that I was paying for a record from a band hailing from my own home town, Southport, and I had no idea that the guys in Gomez had attended the same college where I was studying at the time. I had even less idea that this would become one of my favourite records ever. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust those instinctive feelings and ride with them.

The strength of this brilliant debut can be measured by the fact that it won the 1998 Mercury Music Prize for Album Of The Year, beating off contenders such as Urban Hymns by The Verve and Mezzanine by Massive Attack. I mean, it beat Urban Hymns. Holy shit! That’s massive.

Spin Magazine called Bring It On it “a damn beautiful album,” and it went Platinum in the U.K almost immediately. It was a time where indie bands had crept from the shadows of the stage into the full glare of the spotlight. Britpop had raged, and a new musical assault was forming. It was beyond indie – a fusion of vintage with futuristic. Gomez were in the right place, at the right time, with the right record.

Gomez combine a very clever, steaming cauldron of American Blues, Jazz, Grass-Roots, R&B and warm, harmonious melodies on Bring It On. It’s endlessly inventive, with its paeans to local weed dealers, trippy marshmellow-stepping horns, rollocking studenty drinking ballads and accidental jams-turned epiphanies. I saw the boys back in 1999 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, where, funnily enough, Gomez were supported by a little known band called Coldplay. It was a great gig that demonstrated the depth of this unique line-up of musicians – and it only cost a tenner! Just imagine…

Bring It On begins with the russet tones of Get Miles, a captivating progression through colourful Americana tones. Whippin’ Piccadilly is a jaunty and truly British tune, which, whilst appealing to a slightly more commercial faction, also shows the songwriting diversity within the group. Make No Sound is folksy and brilliantly minimalist, 78 Stone Wobble a febrile two-step with a killer hook, and Tijuana Lady, the immense album highlight, a shambling, psychy epic. That’s a song with an afterlife, that one.

Other highlights on a warm and somewhat fuzzy record include the fascinating Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone, the clumsy but endearing Bubble Gum Years, and the groovy, driving Rock-release of Get Myself Arrested. Here Comes The Breeze is a kind of back-country sonic Blues that provides a perfect platform for Ben Ottewell’s rusty, prematurely smoked vocal, Free To Run a Country soaked ramble, and Rie’s Wagon something straight off an indie-bleached, mysterious Spaghetti Western.

Gomez are a cult band. They’ve never attacked the charts or become famed personalities. In fact, they could all walk down the street unnoticed, which is remarkable when considering their achievements. Their legacy is in their sound; a whimsical, often strange, a little gauche but always compelling melting pot of beguiling influences.

You don’t win The Mercury Music Award without something special going down. Michael Kiwanuka won it in 2020, and if you follow my blog you’ll already know what I think of him. You don’t make a record like Bring It On without being inspired.

Check it out.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Get Miles

Tijuana Lady

Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 9

Mark Knopfler – Privateering (2012)

There are some songwriters that have such a signature sound you know exactly who it is within three seconds of listening. Mark Knopfler is one such musician. It’s not even just for those clickety slick licks anymore either; it’s the full, panoramic soundscape that blends Folk with Trad with Rock with Country Blues – it totally belongs to him.

Knopfler is also a songwriting machine. His output has been consistent post-Dire Straits, and all of it a remarkable standard. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so they say. And in a similar vein to AC/DC (although wildly different, of course) Knopfler never strays very far from home base. And why should he? The formula is there, and the end product unquestionably polished. Privateering, his 2012 twenty-track double solo album, maintains his incredibly high standards and features some absolute Knopfler gems.

Knopfler has a knack of writing new tunes that sound like standards. The title track Privateering is one such number that could well have been written around a campfire one-hundred years ago. After The Beanstalk sounds like something Robert Johnson could have composed, and Bluebird has something eminently Peter Green about it. The beauty of it all is that Knopfler lends sounds from his peers, and like a great LP that he just can’t bring himself to return, keeps it for his own. A bit naughty, but somehow brilliant.

The former Dire Straits and Notting Hillbillies frontman also has a knack of rousing gentle folk-rock soundscapes and moody portraits painted by acoustic guitars, penny whistles, delicate electric guitar blues licks, melancholy fiddle and captivating accordion. Red Bud Tree is delightful, as is the outstanding, penetrating Go, Love. There is a tenderness in Miss You Blues that emits a deep-rooted satisfaction of his lot from Knopfler. It’s just about as listenable as a record could be.

The record is ably supported by some stellar session musicians, most notably former Dire Straits keys player and master arranger, Guy Fletcher. Fiddle and cittern player, John McCusker, is another notable name, along with bassist Glenn Worf, Michael McGoldrick on whistles and pipes, and Paul Franklin on pedal steel. The blend is primarily Folky, but this is a band that does much, much more. Seattle is a highlight, with its majestic chord changes and clement longing. The golden nugget on the album for me, however, is Kingdom Of Gold. At all times rousing, it is lyrically stunning and builds like a fine sunrise, culminating with an enchanting backing choir and something profoundly medieval. Knopfler at his very best.

There are a few throwaways in amongst the twenty. Corned Beef City and Gator Blood didn’t do much for me but carry my legs to the kettle for a brief break, but even those intervals are timed well (ha!). Today Is Ok is more of a filler too, though not without its quirks. All in all, a few weaker moments on a twenty-track album is to be expected. They are very much carried by the deep and meaningful quality radiating from the rest.

There is a misery and melancholy that somehow surrounds Knopfler these days, though it only seems to aid the music. I wouldn’t be rushing out for a pint with the man, but I’d certainly be rushing to the record shop every time there’s a new album announcement.

He’d probably have lemonade anyway.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Mark Knopfler News 2020

Top track trio:

Go, Love

Seattle

Kingdom Of Gold