Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Eric Clapton Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

461 Ocean Boulevard (1974, RSO)

A

It’s not as fiery as Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was – indeed, most of his albums through the bulk of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s tended to adopt something of a laid-back feel – but this sophomore solo outing from Clapton – his first true solo album in four years – is nearly just as well-crafted, and Clapton’s personality as a solo performer really starts to emerge here, thanks in part to the subdued production of Tom Dowd. (The opening cut, “Motherless Children,” even begins with a minute-long guitar solo.) Clapton originals like “Give Me Strength,” the eye-opening gentle pastoral pop of “Please Be with Me,” the rocker “Mainline Florida,” and the great “Let It Grow” sound right at home alongside fine covers of “Motherless Children,” Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man,” Elmore James’ “I Can’t Hold Out,” and Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a minor Top 40 hit for Clapton. But the best moment of all here is when Clapton unexpectedly dips his foot into the reggae well and tackles Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” turning in a rendition that’s shockingly even funkier than the Marley original, and the bold cover would give Clapton his sole Number One hit to date.

There’s One in Every Crowd (1975, RSO)

C –

It’s not that this album feels so much like a carbon copy of 461 Ocean Boulevard that ends up being its downfall – it’s that the album feels suspiciously like leftovers from the sessions for that album. It’s just not nearly as good a batch of songs, and apparently, listeners agreed: not only did this album become Clapton’s first solo disc to not yield a Top 40 hit, its lone single, a reggae version of the standard “Swing Low, Swing Chariot,” wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 at all. “Better Make It through Today” and the cover of Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” are both worth a listen, but there’s really not much else to make the album worth recommending, though it’s not exactly a dreadful album – merely a mediocre and slightly dispassionate one.

No Reason to Cry (1976, RSO)

B +

It’s not as strong as 461 Ocean Boulevard to be considered a complete return to form, but No Reason to Cry is a very respectable step back in the right direction after the disappointing There’s One in Every Crowd. A good deal of the credit for that is probably owed to the crop of featured guests here, including Georgie Fame, Billy Preston, and even more significantly, Bob Dylan and The Band, who both seem to have revived Clapton creatively, since – in addition to the usual well-done blues covers (in this case, “County Jail Blues” and Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” and) – this boasts Clapton’s best set of originals since 461 Ocean Boulevard, including “Carnival,” the Rick Danko co-write “All Our Past Times,” and the very underrated Top 40 hit “Hello Old Friend.” Danko and Richard Manuel also contribute their own composition “Beautiful Thing,” while Dylan offers up the song “Sign Language.” You could say that Clapton perhaps gave his all-star cast a little too much attention, as Clapton’s own personality takes a bit of a back seat here, but when the songs are this much of an improvement over the previous disc, it’s hard to complain.

Slowhand (1977, RSO)

A +

Quite arguably the best studio album he ever made as a solo artist, Slowhand – expertly produced by Glyn Johns – succeeds not simply because it’s quite possibly his best batch of songs yet but because it also feels like Clapton’s most confident solo outing yet. He’s asserting himself here more than he did on the guest-star-loaded No Reason to Cry, and, though he’s still more interested in songs than jamming, he’s also showing off his guitar playing a bit more, even ending the disc with the gorgeous instrumental ballad “Peaches and Diesel.” He’s still got a love for the blues, covering Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Old Frisco,” but he’s also not afraid here to exhibit an appreciation for country, even going so far as to cover Don Williams’ “We’re All the Way,” while his own songwriting also sounds more revealing and deeply emotional here than it has in years. Seldom has Clapton ever sounded quite as breezy as he does on his cover of John Martyn’s “May You Never” or as haunting as he does on his first-rate cover of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine.” The originals are arguably even better, Clapton turning in such career highlights as his now-iconic (and deeply misunderstood) ballad “Wonderful Tonight” (like “Layla,” another Clapton classic written about Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s ex-wife and Eric’s now-girlfriend), the Top Five-charting, toe-tapping country crawl of “Lay Down Sally,” and the fretwork-heavy nearly-nine-minute epic “The Core,” a duet with Marcy Levy that ranks as one of Eric’s most criminally underrated album cuts and shows off his backing band at their very best, guitarist George Terry and drummer Jamie Oldaker in particular turning in perhaps the best performances of their careers.

Backless (1978, RSO)

B + 

If it hadn’t had the ill fortune of having to follow Clapton’s greatest studio outing, Slowhand, it’s likely Backless would have met with a better fate both critically and commercially, but it’s easy to see why many were disappointed. Backless admittedly does not have the same magic as Slowhand. The J.J. Cale-penned “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime” isn’t nearly as good a song as “Cocaine,” while the Marcy Levy co-write “Roll It” seems like more of a jam than an actual song. Though there are two Dylan songs here, neither of them are among his best, unfortunately, although “Walk Out in the Rain” is fairly good. But the remainder of the album tends to be rather underrated. The surprising “Tell Me That You Love Me” has enough of a Philly-soul flavor to its melody to make it sound like something the Spinners could have covered to winning results, while the eight-minute blues of “Early in the Morning” is simply blistering. Clapton also one-ups “We’re All the Way” from the previous album by turning in an even more memorable Don Williams cover, this time of the toe-tapping “Tulsa Time.” The album also sports two very underrated Top 40 hits in the lazy country grooves of the Top Ten hit “Promises” and the fun Clapton original “Watch Out for Lucy,” which boasts one of the catchiest choruses Eric’s ever crafted.

Another Ticket (1981, RSO)

B  

Clapton’s first album of the ‘80s and his last for longtime label RSO is actually fairly comparable to his good buddy George Harrison’s album Somewhere in England from the same year: both albums were originally rejected by the artists’ respective labels and re-recorded; only one single from each album had enough momentum to make it into the Top 40; and neither album was especially well-received by critics upon release. This is arguably a better album than George’s Somewhere in England, though, and even if it’s not one of Eric’s more memorable or famous albums, it’s still sturdy. The frantic closer “Rita Mae” – which sounds like Clapton’s usual formula thrown into a blender with Talking Heads ‘77 –  is great fun, while the groove of “Catch Me If You Can” is awfully hard to resist. The Troy Seals-penned “Black Rose” is one of Eric’s most effective country excursions, while the title cut is Eric’s most lovely self-penned ballad since “Wonderful Tonight” and remains one of his most underrated singles. But the best and most famous song here has to be the toe-tapping Top Ten hit “I Can’t Stand It,” which finds Clapton playfully borrowing a trick from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and having his band play increasingly softer towards the end, only to come bursting back in at full volume.   

Money and Cigarettes (1983, Duck/Warner Bros.)

B –

Clapton’s first album on his own imprint Duck also finds the legend with an almost entirely new supporting band – only Albert Lee returns from the previous album – featuring such session greats as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Roger Hawkins. This is a somewhat head-scratching outing, though – for every sign that Clapton is looking to shake things up or even start anew, there’s another that makes you feel like he’s stuck in a rut and is just going through the motions. This is even the second disc in a row he’s included both a Troy Seals song and a blues cover of a Sleepy John Estes tune. Worse, he sounds helplessly out of time, to the extent that you couldn’t be faulted for occasionally thinking you were listening to an archival package rather than a new disc, not in the least since even the album’s lead-off single, the Top 40 hit “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” sounds more like a lost recording from the 461 Ocean Boulevard or Slowhand sessions than it does a mid-Eighties release. But it’s not bad stuff, either – merely a bit too retro-flavored for its own good – and there are some fine songs here, including the aforementioned “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” “Pretty Girl,” and “The Shape You’re In.” Thankfully, Clapton would shake up his routine a bit more on the next disc.