Following in `Unplugged' footsteps

Review: Eric Clapton's latest album again tastefully mixes blues, rock and a sensitive homage to a dear departed relative.

March 13, 2001|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,BOSTON GLOBE

Eric Clapton's days of radical innovation may be over, but he has compensated with a stylishness that keeps him on top. Ever since he swept the Grammys in 1993 for his 7 million-selling "Unplugged" album - which contained his heartbreaking tribute to his deceased son, "Tears in Heaven" - Clapton has brought a new elegance to the adult-contemporary format and to his beloved blues.

Although sensitivity isn't always fashionable in these days of Eminem and Fred Durst, Clapton has become the consummate English gentleman. And he's releasing a new album today that enhances that image, while showing no erosion of his skills.

The CD carries the unusual title "Reptile," but we're not talking lizards or other such creatures. The title is a term of endearment for people from his English hometown of Ripley, which has been on Clapton's mind since a beloved uncle died last year, sparking memories that he turned into songs.

The album pays homage to the uncle, who lived in Canada, in the moving "Find Myself," about pursuing dreams, and in the instrumental samba "Reptile" and the closing instrumental, "Son & Sylvia," featuring a plaintive harmonica lick by Billy Preston.

The album's acoustic-based focus (though there are two rocking blues tracks) makes it feel like a sequel to "Unplugged." Because family deaths infuse both works, Clapton's sensitive vocals and guitar playing elevate both discs to sublime levels.

In some ways, "Reptile" is an extension of his collaborative effort with B.B. King, "Riding with the King," which recently won a Grammy for contemporary blues album. Clapton keeps some of the same musicians who made that album, such as Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall on guitars, Steve Gadd on drums, and Nathan East on bass. But this time he adds the vocal group the Impressions, whose gospel-inflected harmonies sound traditional and fresh at the same time.

The slow blues tunes are particularly masterful, including a cover of Ray Charles' "Come Back Baby" (with Clapton testifying: "I admit, baby, I was wrong/Let's talk it over one more time").

Happily, Clapton departs from the generally mellow mood to fire things up on the blues-riffing classic "Got You on My Mind" and on the bust-out rock of "Superman Inside," where his electric-slide soloing momentarily evokes memories of his Derek & the Dominos era. It's a teaser to show that he can still rock.

Unlike Clapton's last solo album ("Pilgrim" from 1998), the new record has little computer programming. Its organic feel allows for more spontaneity - and enables Clapton to do more justice to some personal favorites of his, such as old friend J.J. Cale's "Travelin' Light" (enhanced by a long, cascading solo from Clapton) and Stevie Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It," a welcome dose of funk.

Clapton's new original tunes are likewise strong, with the exception of the gushy "Believe in Life," which has a weak, lazy lyric in "I love you more than life/And it will always be this way as long as I believe in life." Ugh.

But the other originals are keepers. Apart from the tributes to his uncle, there is the pretty love song "Second Nature" and the thought-provoking "Modern Girl," a compassionate look at female fast-trackers. "Too many dreams have been laid at her door, but the modern girl will ride on," Clapton sings, before addressing her would-be male lovers: "When would you fit in the scheme of her day and where would you fit into her heart?"

It sounds like another adult-contemporary smash in the making.

`Reptile'

Eric Clapton

Reprise Records

Sun score: * * *

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