*** 1/2; ERIC CLAPTON, "From the Cradle" ( Duck/Reprise )
There's gold in them thar roots, as Clapton discovered when his blues-steeped "Unplugged" album sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and triggered his big night at the Grammys in '92.
But this superior follow-up is no cynical, plugged-in sequel. You can't even dismiss it as a middle-aged rocker's fashionable return to the music of his lost youth. As he moves through 16 nuggets from Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and other icons, Clapton is simply too comfortable, too alive within the electric blues medium for anyone to mistake this for a mere visit for sentimental reasons.
Clapton recognizes that the blues is foremost a form of storytelling, and he succeeds at almost every turn in embodying characters who express sincere regret, ironic mirth or full-on rage as the moment requires. There is potential pop appeal in an acoustic reading of "Motherless Child," while the solo on "Groaning the Blues" qualifies the erstwhile guitar god as an archangel, at least. After too many mediocre albums over the past decade, the only disappointment is that Clapton didn't do this sooner.
New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).