Album reviews: Eric Clapton's 'Clapton' and Phil Collins' 'Going Back'
What a difference six years make — the small but significant difference in years between when Eric Clapton was born in 1945, near the end of World War II, and the birth of Phil Collins in 1951, shortly before rock ’n’ roll would take hold of the world’s imagination.
Whatever the explanation, the contrast couldn’t be more striking between these two British rock veterans’ new albums.
Even the titles are revealing of the differing missions: For Collins, “Going Back” suggests a return, a nostalgic retreat even, to music he obviously loved — specifically, classic R&B, heavy on the ’60s Motown sound; for Clapton, it’s about identity and the exploration of self, which he does by way of mostly vintage blues, R&B and gospel in which he immerses himself with more liberating gusto than he’s exhibited on record in a long time.
Collins takes on 18 tracks in an outing as understandable as it is unnecessary, a high-priced karaoke spin for the ersatz prog-rock-percussionist-turned-master-of-the-’80s-pop-single. He’s largely re-created the original arrangements of Motown standards such as “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “(Love Is Like a) Heatwave,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” and “Going to a Go-Go.” But Collins’ bamboo-reed-thin voice is no substitute for towering oaks like the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, and the others who sang them the first time around.
He has his greatest success conjuring a thin but silky Marvin Gaye-like elegance on a couple of numbers.
Clapton, on the other hand, soars with the elemental styles he’s lived and breathed for most of his 65 years. Sharing production duties with Texas guitar whiz Doyle Bramhall II, they move effortlessly from Texas bluesman Lil’ Son Jackson’s sinewy minor key workout “Travelin’ Alone” through the Mills Brothers-Louis Armstrong ’30s standard “Rocking Chair” to his longtime pal J.J. Cale’s soulful “River Runs Deep” and the ebullient New Orleans jazz treatment of Johnny Burke and Harold Spina’s endearing marriage proposal, “My Very Good Friend the Milkman.”
Guitarists often get obsessed with what’s known as “tone angst,” and Clapton’s tone is consistently to die for: whether it’s the crisp sting he applies to the Cale tune, the deliciously muddy distortion on Reverend Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way to Get Along” or the sinfully dark, thick cloak around the notes he plays in another Cale tune, “Everything Will Be Alright.”
Clapton and Bramhall also have pulled off a minor miracle in assembling an ad hoc group that manages to sound like a blues band whose members have been absorbing one another’s abilities to the point of musical osmosis. Fabulous Thunderbirds harpist Kim Wilson, New Orleans R&B godfather Allen Toussaint and steel guitar ace Greg Leisz pop up on different tracks adding their distinctive touches — but it’s really Clapton’s show.
— Randy Lewis
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Two stars (Out of four)