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(Polydor SACD)
461 Ocean Boulevard

One of my favorite examples of "Engrish" was the cover of a gray-market Asian CD single I saw by world-famous guitarist "Eric Crapton." The craptacularly mediocre output that the one-time guitar deity has been responsible for since the mid-'70s has all but obscured the fine work that earned him that legend in the first place. I love Disraeli Gears (but I give Jack Bruce the credit), and you'd have to be an idiot to not acknowledge Crapton's – I mean Clapton's – guitar abilities. But solo albums like the incredibly overrated Slowhand (also recently reissued on SACD) as well as anything released post-1980 are generally uninspired, mellow and polished to within an inch of their lives.

After recently watching a phenomenal documentary about the legendary producer Tom Dowd (Tom Dowd and the Language of Music – go rent it now), I was forced to completely reassess my opinion of Crapton. Dowd manned boards for everyone from John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the one session that seems to sum up his work best (and one that he clearly had a tremendous amount of passion for) was the one that produced Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. This SACD version is a perfect reintroduction, as the surround-sound mix accentuates the spacious, analog feel of the sessions and is a solid testament to the way that Dowd coaxed easy, organic performances out of all the musicians.

Both Layla and Clapton's self-titled solo debut were released the same year, 1970, and it seems that, except for the success of "After Midnight" from the latter, Clapton was still not ready for a solo career. No wonder he "retired" and waited four more years until he returned to Dowd's Miami studios.

The result of those sessions – 461 Ocean Boulevard – has only gotten better with time. The acoustic simplicity of "Please Be With Me" and the dreamy gospel anthemics of "Let It Grow" point to Clapton's future as the World's Most Boring Great Guitarist. The chiming riffage of "Mainline Florida," the organ-spiced blues of "I Can't Hold Out" or even an outtake like "B-Minor Jam" resonates with an easy artistic confidence that's impossible to deny. An incredibly commercial and pop-leaning record, 461 Ocean Boulevard is nonetheless a high point of his career. And the live disc that fleshes out this edition makes it clear that Clapton was quite unafraid to be a guitar hero onstage.

Clapton's always just been a dude who wants to play guitar, but can't write a song or come up with a concept to save his life. Tom Dowd wasn't a songwriter, but one listen to these two albums – or any of the other hundreds of records he was responsible for – and it's clear that he was deeply attuned to musicians' ethereal creative needs and able to help them come up with usable ideas. His approach was humane and technically proficient, and Clapton – at least at the early, tentative stages of his solo career – benefited greatly from it.

Oh yeah, Disraeli Gears? Dowd produced that one, too.

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