Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Eric Clapton Album (Part 4)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Reptile (2001, Duck/Reprise)

B +

Simon Climie returns as Clapton’s co-producer, but thankfully, the two men keep things more organic here than they did on Pilgrim, and this disc consequently has a much warmer sound. They’ve also got a fairly strong set of material here as well. The pretty Acoustic Alchemy-like instrumental title cut gets the disc off to a very appealing start, while the instrumental “Son and Sylvia” (featuring Billy Preston on harmonica) closes the disc. In between, Clapton hosts legendary vocal group The Impressions on the fun “Got You on My Mind,” turns in a surprisingly effective cover of Stevie Wonder’s underrated “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” dabbles in jazz samba sounds on the catchy “Believe in Life,” revisits the J.J. Cale catalog for “Travelin’ Light,” and turns in a fine and hard-rocking new original in “Superman Inside.” The album is a bit schizophrenic, yes, and perhaps dabbles in too many different styles for its own good, but there are enough solid individual moments to make this a pleasing affair.

Me and Mr. Johnson (2004, Duck/Reprise)

A

It’s a bit head-scratching why Clapton continues to make pop records at all – not that they’re bad, of course, but because Clapton’s clearly late enough in his career now that he no longer needs to worry about scoring radio hits and he never sounds like he’s having more fun than when he’s cutting a pure blues album like this one, a full-length disc of Robert Johnson covers. Every bit as contagious as Riding with the King and arguably a stronger blues outing than From the Cradle, there are no weak moments here to speak of. Sporting a great supporting cast that includes Nathan East on bass, the legendary Billy Preston on keyboards, and the underrated Steve Gadd on drums, Clapton and his crew play their heart out, most notably on “They’re Red Hot,” which features some of Preston’s most electrifying playing in decades, and the rave-ups “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” while the slower-burning blues of “Love in Vain,” “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” are nearly just as appealing. This is a must-hear for fans of Clapton’s blues chops.

Back Home (2005, Duck/Reprise)

C +

Once again re-immersing himself fully into the pop world, Clapton re-teams with co-producer Simon Climie here, also bringing in such special guests as Vince Gill, John Mayer, and Steve Winwood. The album is a little less schizophrenic than Reptile and boasts just as warm a production as that album, but the disc is overly pop-oriented to the extent of being completely alienating to his blues audience and, more crucially, the set of songs here isn’t nearly as good as the batch from Pilgrim. The country-flavored “So Tired” has its charms, as does the reggae-tinged “Say What You Will,” but neither is especially catchy, either, and the best and most unforgettable track here is a cover – but an excellent one – of George Harrison’s sadly-overlooked 1979 single “Love Comes to Everyone,” the original version of which had sported solos from both Clapton and Winwood, coincidentally enough. That track alone goes a long way towards redeeming the album, though as a whole, this unfortunately ends up being just mediocre – though not terrible – and probably his weakest studio album since There’s One in Every Crowd

The Road to Escondido (2006, Duck/Reprise)

B

Clapton had benefitted quite a bit in the ‘70s from covering songs from the J.J. Cale songbook, namely “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” so it’s fitting that the two men should join forces for a full-length collaboration here. The worst thing that could be said about this album is that it doesn’t have anything nearly as immediately catchy as “Cocaine” is, so you may not remember too many individual melodies from the album afterwards, but the songs are all appealing nonetheless and the performances lively. Highlights include “Anyway the Wind Blows” and the funky “Don’t Cry Sister” (both revisited numbers from Cale’s back catalog), “Ride the River,” “Last Will and Testament,” the piano boogie of “Missing Person,” the blues-tinged “Heads in Georgia,” “Sporting Life Blues” (featuring Taj Mahaj on harmonica), and “Hard to Thrill,” featuring John Mayer, who also co-wrote the song with Clapton. This album is also notable for reportedly featuring the last recordings the great Billy Preston would take part in before passing away. Clapton’s songwriting contributions are limited to just two cuts, however, so be aware that this disc – though billed to both men – is really considerably more of a showcase for Cale’s talents than for Clapton’s.

Clapton (2010, Duck/Reprise)

A

Clapton’s finest solo disc since Me and Mr. Johnson and arguably his best pop-oriented studio album since Journeyman, this album, like Reptile, does dabble in quite a few radically different styles, but it strangely holds together remarkably well. There are two new originals here – the appealing “Diamonds Made from Rain” (featuring a cameo from Sheryl Crow) and “Run Back to Your Side” – but the disc is otherwise comprised of a mix of blues covers (the excellent album-opening rendition of Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone,” Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” Snooky Pryor’s “Judgement Day”); two tunes from J.J. Cale (“That’s No Way to Get Along” and “Everything Will Be Alright”), who also guest-stars on both; and old standards such as Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” “Johnny Burke’s “My Very Good Friend the Milkman,” and a delightful album-closing rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.” The album also sports cameos from the likes of former Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson, Allen Toussaint and, surprisingly enough, Wynton Marsalis. Fans of Clapton’s more rock-oriented side might not find a whole lot here to gravitate towards, but for a late-career disc, this is an extremely well-crafted and tasteful affair. 

Old Sock (2013, Surfdog)

B

Clapton’s first indie album doesn’t exactly explore any new territory and is much in the same vein as Reptile and Clapton, albeit a bit spottier. Like Clapton, the disc is guest-heavy and boasts some fun cameos from Steve Winwood (on the strings-laden blues of “Still Got the Blues”), Chaka Khan (on the blues-rock of “Gotta Get Over”) and Paul McCartney (whose bass playing and unmistakable vocals pop up on the cover of the standard “All of Me.”) There’s another J.J. Cale cover – featuring the author himself – in the form of “Angel.” Clapton dips into country territory on “Born to Lose” and reggae on covers of Peter Tosh’s “Til Your Well Runs Dry” and Taj Mahaj’s “Further on Down the Road,” the latter featuring a cameo from Taj Mahaj himself. It’s mostly pleasant, even if there is no particular knockout cut that seems like an obvious single, and the only misstep of any real note is “Every Little Thing,” which dubiously employs a children’s choir, though someone present during the sequencing process really should have pointed out that “Goodnight Irene” would have made a much more suitable album closer than the actual final track, a cover of the standard “Our Love Is Here to Stay” that ends the disc on a rather anticlimactic note. 

The Breeze: A Tribute to J.J. Cale (2014, Surfdog)

C

Taking the Cale worship maybe just a bit too far, Clapton pays a full-length tribute to his recently-fallen friend here. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but Clapton jam-packs the disc with guest stars – including John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, and Mark Knopfler –  and steps away from the mike entirely on many of the tracks, instead allowing his guests to helm the vocals, resulting in an album that ends up feeling rather disjointed and will likely disappoint Clapton fans who were expecting that the guitar legend would also sing each of these songs as well. “Magnolia,” featuring John Mayer on lead vocals, perhaps works the best, and remains just as pretty a song as ever, while other highlights include “Train to Nowhere” (sung by Clapton, Knopfler, and Don White), the up-tempo romp “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” (sung by White and Clapton), and “Don’t Wait,” sung as a duet between Clapton and Mayer. Neither bad nor great, this is merely an average tribute album.

I Still Do (2016, Bushbranch/Surfdog)

A

Every bit as excellent as Clapton, Eric’s most recent studio album features the rock legend still in very fine form indeed. Clapton doesn’t shake up his formula of recent years any, but he does wisely – and unexpectedly – reunite here with Glyn Johns, the producer of his best studio album of all, 1977’s Slowhand, and the pair works their magic again, even if this is a very different kind of album than Slowhand. The blues cover of Leroy Carr’s “Alabama Woman Blues” and the cover of yet another J.J. Cale song – “Can’t Let You Do It” – might seem like a horribly clichéd 1-2 punch to open the album with, but the latter song is quite good, and the album gets a little less predictable from there. The smoking pop-rock of “Spiral” and the acoustic grooves of “Catch the Blues” are two of Clapton’s best originals in years, while the cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is stunning and boasts a great R&B arrangement that recalls The Band at their prime. Even the standards prove to be highlights, Clapton turning in a delightful “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” and cleverly closing the disc with a moving rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” that would make for a fine farewell indeed should Clapton retire from performing in the near future.   

Compilations:

For those listeners interested in a full compilation from Cream, you have plenty of options, but your best bet is the 1995 Polydor package The Very Best of Cream, which compiles twenty highlights from the band onto a single disc. The 2005 double-disc package Gold, which contains twice as much music, may be more desirable to more avid fans of the band, but the entire second disc is devoted exclusively to seven live tracks, only one of which is shorter than six minutes and three of which surpass the ten-minute mark, so it may be very tedious listening to listeners who don’t much care for jamming. As far as Clapton solo compilations go, 1982’s Timepieces: The Best of Eric Clapton is probably the most iconic, but its age and its brevity both work against it. Much more comprehensive is the 2007 double-disc package Complete Clapton, which misses just a few minor hits along the way (“Willie and the Hand Jive,” “Watch Out for Lucy,” “Tulsa Time”) but makes up for it by not only including the non-LP single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (a reggae-tinged cover of the Dylan classic), but including five Cream tunes, a Blind Faith tune, and a well-chosen sampling of his best ‘80s and ‘90s work, including the underrated songs “She’s Waiting,” “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” “Pretending,” and “Bad Love.” [Avoid U.S. pressings of the single-disc The Cream of Clapton, which looks on the surface like a fairly comprehensive compilation of his work from 1966 through 1981 until you realize that it’s not only missing “Tulsa Time,” “Watch Out for Lucy,” and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which would be forgivable, but, inexplicably, “Lay Down Sally,” one of only two Top Three hits he had during this time period. Strangely, the song is included on international pressings, so go figure why the song was deleted for the album’s U.S. edition.] Particularly avid fans may want to splurge for the 1988 four-CD boxed set Crossroads, one of the earliest and still one of the most iconic boxed sets ever released, one that doesn’t simply touch on most of his career highlights going all the way back to the Yardbirds but also includes a generous portion of previously unreleased material, including several cuts from a second Derek and the Dominos album that never came to pass. Vinyl collectors will want to track down a copy of the 1972 Atco compilation History of Eric Clapton, which has sadly never been issued on CD in the U.S. but contains some extremely cool rarities amidst the hits, including “Tribute to Elmore,” an instrumental guitar duet between Clapton and Jimmy Page, “I Want to Know” by the short-lived group The Powerhouse, the King Curtis single “Teasin’” (featuring Clapton on guitar), and two alternate versions of “Tell the Truth,” one of which is an incredibly fun, rapid-fire Phil Spector production of the song that was previously only available on 45 and then hastily pulled from the market. [It’s also one of the few Clapton compilations to contain any of his session work with Delaney & Bonnie.]

Live Albums:

There are more than a dozen live discs from Clapton to choose from (and that’s not even counting Cream or Derek & the Dominos live albums, either), the aforementioned Unplugged being the most iconic in the bunch. Aside from that disc, however, the best is probably a toss-up between 1980’s surprisingly quite tight and focused Just One Night (which yielded a minor double-sided Top 40 hit with its live renditions of “Tulsa Time” and “Cocaine”) or 1991’s 24 Nights. Avoid Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert and E.C. Was Here, the former of which is just too sloppy and the latter of which is too brief and boasts a terrible track selection (and even worse rear cover art).  The four-CD boxed set Crossroads: Live in the Seventies verges on overkill and is also pricey, but it does contain a fairly well-chosen selection of Eric’s best live performances between 1974 and 1978 and comes recommended to those who prefer Eric’s live recordings to his studio output.

Soundtracks:

Clapton has contributed to a handful of film soundtracks over the years. Most of these appearances are inessential for the casual Clapton listener, but two noteworthy exceptions are the soundtrack to the 1995 film Phenomenon, which yielded one of Clapton’s all-time biggest radio hits in the acoustic lite-R&B grooves of the Top Five hit “Change the World,” and the soundtrack to 1992’s Rush, which is entirely penned and performed by Clapton. The latter disc is mostly instrumental, but it does contain three vocal numbers, one of which is the studio version of the lovely – and still tear-jerking to this day – mournful ballad “Tears in Heaven,” which stopped just one spot shy of becoming Clapton’s second Number One hit.