Of all the pages in the boomer-era artist’s late-career playbook, few are as well-worn as the “back to basics” roots album. We all know the formula: a roster of prominent guest stars; an auteur producer (almost always Rick Rubin, occasionally Jack White, T-Bone Burnett or Daniel Lanois); a track listing that juxtaposes genre standards with more contemporary reinterpretations. Many of these albums are very good, which is precisely the point: they’re precision-engineered to be good, specifically the kind of “good” that wins Grammys and works like catnip on critics of a certain age.
Out of the Blues, the 19th studio album by veteran blue-eyed soul man Boz Scaggs, looks on paper like one of those albums. The auteur producer is missing – unless you count Scaggs himself, who takes the reins with the aid of longtime engineers Chris Tabarez and Michael Rodriguez. The guest stars are mostly missing too, though session musicians Jim Keltner, Willie Weeks and Ray Parker Jr. are pretty big names in their own right. But everything else, from the tastefully punning title to the cover design’s evocation of mid-century cool, suggests that this is exactly the kind of album one would expect it to be: the kind that gets feted by critics, sweeps all the “traditional” award show categories and is promptly forgotten afterwards.
In fact, Out of the Blues kind of is one of those albums – but the “kind of” ends up making all the difference. Like its immediate predecessors, 2013’s Memphis and 2015’s A Fool to Care, Blues captures Scaggs primarily as an interpreter, lending his honeyed Texas-via-Bay Area croon to a cover-heavy set of tunes by the likes of Jimmy Reed (“Down in Virginia”), West Coast bluesman Jimmy McCracklin (“I’ve Just Got to Know”) and Bobby “Blue” Bland (“I’ve Just Got to Forget You,” “The Feeling is Gone”). But while the album’s sound is predominantly – and predictably – stripped-down urban blues, Scaggs doesn’t shy away from throwing a few curveballs. The glistening lead guitar on opening track “Rock and Stick” is polished to a coke-mirror sheen, reminding us that while this is a back-to-basics roots album, it’s still one by the man who gave us Silk Degrees. And the synthesizers and phased drums bubbling beneath the groove of “Radiator 110” sound more like ZZ Top’s Eliminator than your typical blues tribute.
Even when the arrangements hew closer to blues conventions, Scaggs’ distinctive voice makes the songs his own. His cover of Neil Young’s “On the Beach” seems at first like a patch job, smoothing over Young’s threadbare warble with more conventional musicality. But the nuance of Scaggs’ performance accentuates rather than softens the song’s emotional punch: his version may not be as ragged as Neil’s, but it’s every bit as devastating. And while the horn-heavy arrangement of closing track “The Feeling Is Gone” recalls the Bobby Bland original, Scaggs never sounds like he’s doing an impersonation: the sound is lived-in, a natural fit for a man who has been singing this kind of music for the past 50 years.
This may be why Out of the Blues feels consistently more natural and less pretentious than the typical late-career roots effort: like the Rolling Stones’ most recent album, Blue & Lonesome, it feels less like a “back to basics” gimmick than the heartfelt work of an artist in his wheelhouse. It’s worth noting that some of the album’s best songs are original compositions: mostly by harmonicist Jack “Applejack” Walroth, with Scaggs helping out on the rollicking “Little Miss Night and Day.” The cool, slinky groove of Walroth’s “Those Lies” could have come from an old Earl King record, but it’s a brand new song, as fresh and vital as any other released this year. In other words, Out of the Blues isn’t retro, it’s timeless; and that alone puts it ahead of most other albums in its genre.