To Tulsa and Back
On his first new studio album since 1996’s Guitar Man, J.J. Cale does what he does best, laying down that same easy-going country-blues boogie shuffle that inspired Clapton, Knopfler, and so many others. And while there may not be anything here to rival tunes he penned like “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” To Tulsa and Back is a solidly listenable disc and a welcome return.
Opener “My Gal” floats by on a lighter-than-air guitar and synth groove as Cale sings “My my my• she sure gets high.” Cale’s whispery vocals are buried in the mix on the Leonard Cohen-like vamp “Chains of Love” but he does give us a nice guitar solo. His vocals are even harder to hear on the rapid-fire “Motormouth,” the one track here that gets up a pretty good gallop. Tracks like “New Lover” and “Fancy Dancer” are more typical Cale — wispy, frothy confections.
But a trio of songs in the middle of the record show Cale more engaged in the world. The acoustic blues “Stone River” was written for the environmental Earthjustice campaign. Cale also gives us a sad tale about the “Homeless.” And he offers some overt political commentary on “The Problem.” “The man on the street ain’t got a clue• The man in charge has got to go,” he sings.
Cale adds horns and percussion to the mix on “Rio,” an ode to the city of the same name (and not the Duran Duran tune). “Sao Paolo, Brasilia• I’ve been there before/ They make me think of just the girl next door/ They don’t have no sexual groove/ Rio Rio puts me in that mood,” Cale sings.
Cale also gives us some nice acoustic picking on “Blues for Mama” and a banjo tune to close the record. Through it all, Cale makes these slippery rhythms sound effortless. But easygoing is sometimes the hardest thing to do of all. Hopefully next time it won’t take him another eight years.