Beginning with 1989’s Journeyman and continuing through 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson, Eric Clapton rotated studio albums consisting of blues covers—including one with B.B. King (Riding With The King)—with rock/blues fusion releases that boasted many original compositions.
Reptile, released in March of 2001, returned producer Simon Climie and many of the band members from Clapton’s Pilgrim project, yet the results were very different and the music was ultimately superior. Clapton managed to keep Climie’s inclination to program instruments under control. The drum machines were turned down, the synthesizers used more judiciously. It all added up to an intimate, very good album.
Andy Fairweather-Low returned as the second guitarist as did Joe Sample, who handled the keyboards on eight of the tracks. The inspired addition was the use of the legendary soul group, The Impressions, as back-up singers for ten of the fourteen tracks. They complemented Clapton’s vocals well and provided a fullness of sound that was unique among his releases.
As with many of his non-blues studio albums, sometimes Clapton’s guitar playing disappears into the background and the solos are much too short. Still, what is present is representative of his talent. Two instrumentals bookend the album. The title song has a smooth, almost jazz feel to it while “Son & Sylvia” contains some nice acoustic work.
The old Ray Charles tune, “Come Back Baby,” is given a superior treatment. Billy Preston’s joyful organ playing drives the song along and combines well with Clapton’s bluesy guitar lines while his near-gospel vocal floats above the mix. “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” is a rare, successful cover of a Stevie Wonder composition.
“Superman Inside” and the J.J. Cale tune “Travelin’ Light” find him in rock mode while his own composition, “Believe In Life,” is a quiet love song.
Reptile presents the modern studio Clapton at his best and while it may not contain the guitar pyrotechnics that I would necessarily like to hear, it is still a satisfying album.