Review Summary: “Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players.” Neil Young
Uniquely, JJ Cale’s claim to fame is not through his music alone but other artists' interpretation of it. Cocaine and After Midnight by Eric Clapton and Call Me the Breeze by Lynyrd Skynyrd were huge hits while many other bands including Beck, Dire Straits, and even Spiritualized would incorporate Cale’s music into their own.
This makes sense when you consider JJ usually used very sparse arrangements that left a lot of room for expansion. You could compare a Cale song to the storyboards of a film, the framing of a house, painting a picture with only primary colors, or even shadows on a wall i.e. Allegory of the Cave. Its up to the listener to decide whether they prefer the less is more approach of Cale or the more intense audio assault of his peers.
Naturally was the first solo album Cale recorded and it featured what would become his calling card, minimalistic guitar/vocal interplay and a laid back vibe. This is a short, 12 song record that brings to mind desert settings and low key affairs. It also features his one hit song, Crazy Mama, his only song to ever chart which is surprising to me since at least half these songs are more melodious and engaging.
While the meat of this album is Cale’s singing and fretwork he is able to avoid creating tedious music often associated with the sing/songwriter stereotype. He accomplishes this by expanding the instrumentation. Besides guitar, bass, and drums he often includes piano, saxophone, harmonica, violin, a horn section, and tambourines. Combining these instruments adds some spice to the music which helps make up for Cale’s vocal range which is notoriously limited but at least somewhat emotive.
The songwriting, while adequate and fitting, is more about creating rhythms that the instruments can then build upon. When done correctly now you have solid grooves that Cale will then often highlight by subtle guitar runs full of syncopation throughout. Neil Young’s earlier quote on JJ is not declaring that Cale is a guitar master who shreds better than the rest but rather that he is able to get as much expression out of his instrument as even the great ones, regardless of speed or volume.
For a man who was known for his shyness and humble disposition Cale really did enjoy a long successful career, playing and touring almost until his death. This record is usually considered his best but in typical Cale fashion nothing immediately jumps out at you. Even the last track fades away unassumingly leaving the listener as chill as the album just experienced and in my opinion the ability to enjoy said album is not necessarily about appreciating the songwriting or even the music but the mood that it lends to you with association.