March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it a C

A waggish friend recently suggested that aging rock stars — like many of their counterparts in the jazz and classical worlds — should consider teaching, where they might contribute to the genre’s betterment rather than simply delivering yet another third-rate album. And what young mook couldn’t learn a thing or two from Steven Tyler (”Hard Rock Makeup 101: Dude! Look Like a Lady!”) or Keith Richards (”Drugs, Touring, and Border Police: Who Let the Dogs Out?”)?

No doubt a master class in guitar-wringing with Eric Clapton would be over-enrolled from the get-go. Yet unlike other potential rock profs, Clapton (who turns 56 this month) has a thriving second career — as an adult-contemporary balladeer. It’s not so surprising: His avuncular tenor can conjure the white crooners he grew up hearing on the radio. And against the backdrop of his struggle with drug rehab and the 1991 death of his 4-year-old son, Conor, songs like ”Tears in Heaven” and ”Change the World” have made Clapton a premier channel for the pain and regrets of his boomer constituency. Like Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Bill Clinton, he’s been cast as one of pop’s most inspirational survivors.

Reptile follows hot on the heels of last year’s Riding With the King, Clapton’s Grammy-winning collaboration with B.B. King, and uses many of the same players, including electric bluesman Doyle Bramhall II (whose solo CD Welcome is due this June). In addition, R&B vocal champs the Impressions add a gospel-ish gravity throughout, as do Billy Preston’s distinctive organ swirls. The meaty, polished blues arrangements here — ”Got You on My Mind,” the Ray Charles-identified ”Come Back Baby,” ”I Want a Little Girl” — could be Riding outtakes. And while most evoke the image of a tuxedoed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clap-along jam, they still flash respectable levels of soul.

But at heart, Reptile is yet another version of the tepid corporate rock records Clapton’s been making ever since 1974’s best-selling 461 Ocean Boulevard. Per script, it boasts notable covers: a fleet take on ”Travelin’ Light” by J.J. Cale (who penned Clapton’s pre-sobriety signature, ”Cocaine”), a stiff canter through Stevie Wonder’s ”I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” and a soppy reading of James Taylor’s ”Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” that weakly courts the same fireplace-and-cognac R&B crowd as 1998’s Pilgrim.

The key ballads here are catchy, easy-listening vehicles for 12-step rhetoric. ”Believe in Life” awaits the end-credit roll of the next Nora Ephron love-is-wacky weeper. ”Find Myself” has more personality, with a music-hall jauntiness and a cheeky Bing Crosby-ish vocal. Perhaps to reintroduce Clapton as a hard-rock artist, the lead single is ”Superman Inside,” a self-esteem-building blues-rocker with nice slide work and a chorus (”Keep on pushin’/Gettin’ closer to peace of mind”) that Dave Matthews might pay good money for. ”Layla” it’s not — though it does beat the Unplugged version of same. Bracketing the album are two instrumentals smothered in jazz-lite dressing.

Reptile is accomplished in its scrubbed-roots way, but tough to get excited about. It isn’t even that Clapton is simply stuck in his tracks. T.D.F.’s Retail Therapy, Clapton’s uncredited but not uninteresting 1997 collaboration with Reptile coproducer Simon Climie, mixed New Agey texture jams with the sort of techno-break-beat-blues fusion Moby would later get right. And to be sure, the guy still plays guitar like he cut a deal with the devil. With the upsurge of blues-based jam-rock (Gov’t Mule, Ben Harper) and even punk rock (the White Stripes, the Gossip), it’s not like the blues are strictly boomer fare. Perhaps some new young collaborators might help Slowhand with the vision thing.

At this point, Eric Clapton has nothing left to prove — inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame an unmatched three times (for the Yardbirds, Cream, and as a solo artist), winner of countless Grammys, and deified at an age when most mere mortals are still paying off college loans. But it would be nice to see him put his world-class talent to some other use than as industry fodder; maybe he could follow his admitted affection for ruffneck hip-hop (dude’s a Juvenile fan!), or drum-and-bass, or R&B (Babyface schmaltz aside). Either that, or school some of our new metalheads in Cream-style psychedelic blues. Modern rock needs all the help it can get.

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