Eric Clapton
Reprise Records

To those for whom the '60s are less a memory than a myth, to those who believe yesterday never means as much as tomorrow, Eric Clapton barely exists. His post-'80s output contains scarcely an echo of what he created in the '60s and early '70s, so much so that you'd be foolish to try to link what was to what is. At best, he's an overrated legend; at worst, Clapton has become a hack and a whore, a musician who has sold out so often he owns the whole franchise. His is the new-age blues now, and he makes music for people who only think they like music in the first place. Don't be fooled: Clapton '98 is a business, and nothing more.

Such is the vibe on Pilgrim, Clapton's first album since the debacle that was TDF, a release so embarrassing even to him that he didn't bother to put his name on the jacket (it was credited to X-Sample) or use his face in publicity photos. Desperate to prove he hadn't been left behind, Clapton leapt onto the techno bandwagon and was crushed beneath its wheels; the results were the ambient noodlings of a man who seemed completely lost, unsure of himself, finished. Coming as it did after From the Cradle -- his attempt to recapture the blues fetish that made him, for a moment, a guitar god to deluded Britons who wouldn't know Lightning Hopkins if he struck them dead -- his electronic foray was the question mark at the end of a career.

Pilgrim is nothing more than another sad coda, more adult pop by a man who was once the finest white interpreter of black music. It's tempting to excuse the disc's mellow ramblings as the grown-up revelations of someone who has experienced the deep loss of family and friends. Indeed, after all Clapton's been through -- losing his son to a tragic accident and his band members in the same helicopter crash that claimed the life of his friend and acolyte Stevie Ray Vaughan -- one might resist criticizing his work for fear of being labeled callous. But Clapton is no Bob Dylan, and he has rarely been given to revelation: Here, he too easily falls back on cliche to express himself -- "I'm drowning in a river of tears," he sings on the Pilgrim's second track -- and too often buries himself beneath production so garish and impenetrable you can barely even hear the guitar-playing of one of the greatest guitar players of the past three decades; it's there, somewhere, lost underneath all those synthesized strings and electronic drum tracks. Calling the music on Pilgrim tepid, flat, boring soul music so white it's blinding would be to give this CD too much credit.

Clapton sounds like Steve Winwood circa 1987, oversinging and underwriting songs until they sound like a thousand other forgotten hooks you once ignored on the radio. "Needs His Woman" is almost tuneless, riddled with so many borrowed images (every song seems to contain a reference to "falling rain") and hackneyed sentiments ("he needs his woman to love") and ringing chimes that it's too moribund even for VH-1. Only "Sick and Tired" and "She's Gone" radiate any life: The former begins with a distorted guitar kick and never wavers, offering a slight joke ("I'm gonna buy me a parrot and teach it how to call my name / Then I won't have to miss you, babe") that bursts from this dreary disc like the burst of a thousand suns.

But those fleeting moments are not enough to excuse Pilgrim's saccharine misery, not by a long shot. There's nothing so depressing as hearing a former rocker give in to middle age, dumbing down and fogging over as he coasts to the finish line. Clapton shot the sheriff a long time ago. Now, it seems, he also shot his wad. (*)

-- Robert Wilonsky

All the Pain Money Can Buy
Hollywood Records

Thus far, Hollywood Records has been a hapless music-industry gamble for parent company Disney. A few years down the line, the struggling label has yet to yield a major hit, let alone a single breakthrough artist.

Fastball could change all that. This insufferably clever, deceptively commercial Austin trio has the tireless work ethic and hook-doused ingenuity to become Texas's answer to the Goo Goo Dolls -- and with a better sense of humor, to boot. Ah, but Hollywood dragged its feet in promoting the band's irresistible 1996 debut, Make Your Mama Proud, an insanely catchy coalescence of pop craftsmanship and punk spirit delivered at a steroid-addled hare's pace. But buried under the label's mountain of movie soundtracks, Mama saw very little, if any, national airplay, and Hollywood seemed resigned to its failure. The end result: Millions of listeners never knew what they'd missed.

But armed with All the Pain Money Can Buy, Hollywood has a chance of redeeming itself. This follow-up is every bit as good as its predecessor, and has more patient tempos and smarter songwriting, as well. Fastball's Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo -- with their sympathetic, self-deprecating stance and impeccable read on the perfect hum-along chorus -- are a thrift-store Lennon and McCartney, thoroughly immersing themselves in the gritty life around them, from drug-addicted friends to their own struggles with money to distant human tragedies stolen from newspaper headlines. Pain's simplest sentiments are the most powerful: "Sometimes I feel like I am drunk behind the wheel / The wheel of possibility, however it may roll," Scalzo laments on "Out of My Head," an endearing bedside confessional to a lover unjustly slighted.

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