John Cale – Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

John CaleShifty Adventures in Nookie Wood Double Six Recordings DS047 (2012)

It’s 2012 and both John Cale and Bob Dylan have new albums  What do they have to offer?  On Tempest, Dylan is operating in old man mode.  He’s interested in a time-worn kind of songwriting, that could have very well passed for something written decades ago — even before Dylan’s career began in the early 1960s.  It’s updated, a little.  But the key is that he’s not really interested in what is happening around him in the music world.  His style exists on its own, carried as long (or as short) as that takes him.  As it turns out, it finds him stuttering, with some stellar tunes (like “Duquesne Whistle”) and some that are much less than that.  In all Dylan is largely back on his bad habit of lazy blues riffing (what he really cemented with World Gone Wrong).  And there you have it.  Dylan remains Dylan, a sometimes insightful but always unshakable and inscrutable curmudgeon.

Cale’s approach could hardly be more different.  As usual, his lyrics are sly, a little bit witty, with clever and intelligent themes but often fumble about short of a poet’s touch.  But what stands out is his clear intent to sound contemporary.  He has auto-tuned vocals that could easily have come from the latest R&B/hip-hop/dance hit.  He’s pretty competent, and not for a second does he seem to lack an understanding of contemporary pop.  Though he never seems to really, really love what he’s offering here.  At times, there are hints of some of his old songs from the 70s like “Mary Lou,” seamlessly re-purposed, though by the same token it’s also hard not to think of them being re-used in place of an original hook.  In the end, this is a continuation of the interest in modern musical production methods that began with Hobo Sapiens, though Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, despite always being eminently listenable, lacks the pathos, the silly humor and personal feel of that former achievement (which has held up quite well almost a decade later).  It may be a reality of making the songs more amenable to live performance.  Despite some stellar support Cale has struggled to make the Hobo Sapiens songs work in concert.

Dylan may be less than a year older than Cale, but on this evidence they seem to inhabit different worlds.  It’s a wonderful thing to find musicians still active after all these years having the freedom to take such divergent paths.  Neither really delivers at his best.  For Dylan, he soars and he sinks, and the sum total is an uneven affair that is best taken in only select doses.  For Cale, he rides an even keel, and even gains some momentum across the album, but you probably won’t find any of his tunes stuck in your head.

John Cale – Vintage Violence

Vintage Violence

John CaleVintage Violence Columbia CS 1037 (1970)

John Cale’s solo debut is shocking. One might have expected some all-out avant-rock akin to what Cale did with The Velvet Underground. Maybe some droning classical compositions like he had recorded with Tony Conrad (later released on the “New York in the 60s” series). Or maybe even something like the albums he produced for The Stooges and Nico. Instead he delivered a Bee Gees Odessa, a Beach Boys Sunflower, or something along those lines at least.

Cale wrote songs with a vast awareness of what he was capable of. Vintage Violence casts the arty ambitions aside and works from scratch.  He conceived and recorded the whole album within about two weeks. What surfaces is a delicate naiveté. The songs are nostalgic. Every word seems to reference a fond, or at least strong, memory.

Rock and roll was a somewhat spontaneous endeavor for John Cale. He had classical training and just fell into to rock and roll with The Primitives (Lou Reed’s fabricated touring outfit that became The Velvet Underground). So he arrived with an articulate, fully-formed identity. But then he fell in love with the whole rock and roll thing. Cale made his rebellion with The Velvets. For his solo debut, he dove into pop music. He was willing to try anything it seems. Yet, he was already enough of a master to anticipate the consequences of every move. There may be sudden shifts and shimmies, but Cale responds to each with careful follow-throughs.

Recording his debut, Cale was still married to fashion designer Betsey Johnson (who was responsible for dressing up The Velvet Underground in their day). Lots of things could be said about that influencing the lush, sophisticated pop of Vintage Violence. You could stack a hundred Neil Diamond albums on top of each other and not have the elegance of John Cale’s compositional grace with pop songs (“Big White Cloud” is worthy of a great Scott Walker song). Certainly something changed by the time Cale was recording abrasive albums like Sabotage/Live and Honoi Soit.

At times the lyrics fall on their face, but anyone who expects otherwise would be the type who would have run into Andy Warhol and expected an engaging conversation (ha!). Then again, songs like “Amsterdam” and “Charlemagne” would make Cale out to be a great lyricist.

Vintage Violence cast no shadow on future projects. Church of Anthrax recorded around the same time with Terry Riley bears no resemblance. This wasn’t the last time Cale dove headfirst into pop music though.

Maybe Vintage Violence works because it throws a brick through the window of the avant-garde. The people inside were so busy throwing their own bricks that maybe this inadvertently got thrown back out.

John Cale – Paris 1919

Paris 1919

John CaleParis 1919 Reprise K 44239 (1973)

Few albums defy categorization like Paris 1919. Though not popular at its original release, it is an album extensively referenced by critics and is a captivating work appreciated best upon extended reflection.

Is it pop? Is it classical? Is it experimental rock? Maybe it is country or blues? Don’t they call this guy a “godfather of punk”? Categorizing John Cale is as productive and interesting as staring upward and counting holes in ceiling tiles. He made his own way. Few have attempted such sweeping musical portraits of home and history that shape a life.

Paris 1919 is a personal album for Cale. It reflects himself, rather than the racy crowd he ran with. Cale focuses on fond memories. He envisions a future built on the distilled successes of his past or at least the most profound questions that passed his way. This makes the album more endearing than the equally brilliant Fear. Paris 1919 takes the sophisticated pop of his solo debut, Vintage Violence, to a higher level by replacing naïve (in a good way) exuberance with calm confidence. Exposing anything personal makes an artist vulnerable, but truly great art requires some kind of revelation. Even metaphysical statements must usually come with a personal attachment. Cale achieves this in every respect.

Cale could expertly handle the sometimes-tedious task of composing new works. The results can be deceptive. A casual listen may suggest this is a straightforward album. Closer inspection reveals his placement of pulsing vamps, sharp dissonances, and sonic swells. These techniques are merely a means to realize his vision, as the lighthearted joys of the material always supplant technical considerations. The album is not an assemblage of independent components. Instead, Paris 1919 works as a unified whole always trained on the basic principles Cale held most dear.

Though not particularly known for his lyrics, Paris 1919 holds some of his best. He even includes reference to fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. Cale’s greatest success is in making music uniquely his own. This isn’t a performance-heavy album for him. Most of his efforts lie in guiding his vision. Against Cale’s Welsh lilt the studio band sparkles, featuring Little Feat members Lowell George and Richard Hayward.

Despite difficulty in comparison, Paris 1919 is a unique artistic triumph. A work like this rarely fits into the preconceived notions of pop culture since it goes beyond what once seemed to be the outer limits. Paris 1919 is uplifting and intimate without heavy-handed sentimentality.

John Cale – Fear


John CaleFear Island ILPS 9301 (1974)

John Cale’s music, like most great art, is defined by subtlety.  Unfortunately, subtlety is lost on most listeners and many critics. His classical background introduced fresh ideas to rock and roll. So much is made of his association with the origins of punk and with the avant-garde that his range is often overlooked, due to his disregard for divisions between highbrow and lowbrow forms. His music is unique in its own way and difficult to precisely classify.

The guitar plays a central role on Fear. With the combined efforts of Brian Eno and Phil Manzarena, Fear has frequent bouts of guitar fireworks (Eno would electronically process Manzarena’s guitar solos). Simultaneously accentuating the internal textures of the guitar (like John Cage could do for the “prepared” piano) he blends the guitar into the overall collection of sounds. Manipulation of guitar tunings and chord structures make this unique. While first listening to the album, it’s not easy to say “that guitar is tuned differently!” But it becomes obvious that other music doesn’t sound quite the same. Other performers include Andy MacKay, Fred Smith, Judy Nylon, and Richard Thompson. Superb performances by the Cale’s studio band fully realize his visions. Demanding and all-encompassing compositions come to life through the superb musicians that bring just enough life and improvisational character to the recordings.

Fear has some of Cale’s most concise pop songs. “Buffalo Ballet” is a ballad of railroads on the Great Plains. Cale’s lyrics were never that interesting and Fear is hardly an exception (which is what made Lou Reed/John Cale collaborations so powerful). Cale is a more a composer than lyricist. He tells his stories with music, not words. Lyrics are just a minor part of the grand arrangements. All too often lyrics are used as the sole basis for determining the “quality” of an album. John Cale provides a counterargument against such evaluative methods.

Always pushing the limits, Cale’s background covers impressive territory. He performed with John Cage as a pre-teen. Then Aaron Copeland arranged for a scholarship for the Welsh-born Cale to study in the states. Cale moved into the avant-garde cadre stateside, including a much-heralded stint with The Theater of Eternal Music (a/k/a La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate).  His move to rock and roll began when he and fellow Dream Syndicate member Angus MacLise joined Lou Reed to promote the single “(Do the) Ostrich” as the band The Primitives. Out of the Primitives grew The Velvet Underground. When Lou Reed felt threatened by John Cale’s abilities, Cale left the Velvets. Originally unreleased Velvet Underground recordings like “Stephanie Says,” “Ocean,” and “Ride Into the Sun” point to the direction Cale wanted the group heading. Those demos and outtakes issued years later show subtle complexities very similar to the music on Fear.

This music is almost punk, but that’s not quite the best descriptor. John Cale was in many ways the godfather of the punk sound (Lou Reed being the godfather of its ideals). Fear was the factor that urged Patti Smith to use Cale to produce her seminal debut album Horses.

If anything, Cale’s immense talent ruined any chance of popular appeal outside the U.K. He so expertly incorporated his experiments, they often seem like pop songs on the surface. But that is hardly the whole truth. “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” uses Cale’s distinctive reverse dynamics. A combination of rhythmic and dynamic shifts is substantively the opposite of the traditional pop format; however, the result fits perfectly with a pop aesthetic. Cale’s piano, with the brilliant use of space in the opening bars, features his characteristic choppy, pounding chords.

The only familiar Cale technique largely absent on Fear is the drone. Such a forceful part of his repertoire (even appearing on producing efforts like The Stooges and his film scores), we get slightly altered versions on “Gun” and “Ship of Fools.” Not quite drones, he employs almost pedal tones (a technique J.S. Bach used by repeating a tone while chords change around it) with static chords or straight pedal tones.

“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” reveals Cale’s infatuation with The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s heavenly California harmonies. You still get an insider’s views on Warholian episodes with “Ship of Fools.” Always though, the melodies are sweet.

John Cale didn’t have a particularly memorable singing voice, but he had more technical vocal ability than usually credited. He said that one basic motivation of rock & roll is to scream and get paid for it. On many levels, that is a remarkable truthful statement. Cale does move from sweet vibrato to unbridled screams — always executed with precision.

Where Paris 1919 was a mellow portrait of home, Fear collects John Cale’s great rock and roll experiments. Personal revelations, anecdotes, and biographical portraits give Fear a well-rounded scope. Cale’s experience as a producer made this album possible. Like a grand opera, Cale finds the perfect use for each element. While his uniqueness may have hindered his popular appeal, it certainly made for great music. In my mind, John Cale is a tremendously influential musician. Always in his own way. Like Eric Dolphy (the jazz musician), the right people knew he was great, but most people miss his greatest innovations.

On a personal level, I find John Cale remarkable. He devoted time to the high & “proper” classical arena, and to “dirtyass rock and roll” (to reference the song from Slow Dazzle). In a sense, he was never fully accepted by either camp. Some rockers considered him too elitist coming from a classical background, while the classical people though he wasted time making stupid pop music. But there are many examples that show how both sides are wrong. John Cale made great music. The discussion should really end there. He was never properly accepted as a genius. Musical Renaissance men like Cale face a bias, but only from the ignorant. I respect a man who can continue to create his own art despite little public acceptance. He was right and the world wasn’t. Unlike Thelonious Monk (who chose to play different than everybody else in public, but privately played conventional stride styles), John Cale was different. He just went with his instincts.

John Cale – The Island Years

The Island Years

John CaleThe Island Years Island 314524235-2 (1996)

John Cale was at the epicenter of much of rock music’s development in the 1970s.  Well, to be fair, his influence began in the 1960s, with one of the first and still one of the best “underground” (read: modern) rock bands, The Velvet Underground.  Then he was producing The Stooges‘ self-titled debut and recording on his own and in collaboration with others.  But his solo career was in full swing in the 1970s, and he continued to produce some outstanding records by others.

After a solo debut (Vintage Violence) that focused on artful country-rock shot through with strong Leonard Cohen influences and another album operating in the realm of modern classical music (The Academy in Peril), he made the gentle Paris 1919.  Then he landed a multi-record deal with Island records and released a trio of albums within the space of about a year.  The three Island records Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy–all collected here with additional bonus tracks–have a certain consistency and commonality that makes them ideally suited to being packaged together.  Though each of the albums collected has its own personality.  Fear is the inventive one, with a twisted, arty appeal.  Slow Dazzle is the most conventional sounding–relatively speaking–with a more traditional rock sensibility.  Helen of Troy is the most savage and viscious of the three, with a hard tone laid down by a band well-practiced from performing live with Cale.

Reviewer Patrick Brown described Cale as a “master of mood”.  That’s absolutely true, but it’s also worth noting that on his Island trilogy he specialized in a very particular kind of mood that bore a very special place in the context of its time (very much like Jim O’Rourke roughly two-and-a-half decades later).  Somebody on a wiki wrote that Cale’s music in the 70s “featured a dark and threatening aura, often carrying a sense of barely-suppressed aggression.”  While Paris 1919 was hopeful and intimate with an emphasis on the nostalgic, the Island trio adapted to times a bit more tumultuous.  There was now a palpable sense of uncertainty.  Nostalgia still played a role (like “Ship of Fools” from Fear), but it now conveyed something lost and squarely of the past, like a new era was upon us and the old ways didn’t point the way for the future.  There are plenty of songs here that recall various bygone rock and roll movements, but reconfigured in a punchy and sometimes more unnerving way (like Cale’s deconstruction of “Heartbreak Hotel” from Slow Dazzle).  Even when mannerisms of the past are present (like the saxophone on “Darling I Need You” from Slow Dazzle), the sound is never “retro” but more of a transposition, accentuated with heavier bass and a more ominous or wearied tone.  Discussing the songs here, that astute RYM reviewer praised “pretty much any one where he starts screaming.”  There are quite a few of those.  Cale has plenty of hard rockers here, most of which build up from a steady beginning to a kind of frenzied, chaotic conclusion.  What makes these so special is the very explicit unraveling that takes place within those songs, something not merely implied.  But even when it seems like any of this music is set to go off its hinges, Cale reels things back a touch.  His pop sensibility always remains in reach.  He was strongly influenced by The Beach Boys (like on “China Sea” from Helen of Troy), and even recorded a Brian Wilson tribute (“Mr Wilson” from Slow Dazzle).  Though in some ways this music might actually be seen as the frayed rock and roll spirit that sits just outside the best of Carpenters‘ early 1970s oeuvre, now less contained and closer to (or past) the boiling point.

Cale’s lyrics are suited to the material.  They are always a little obtuse.  Still, they serve the overall mood, which is given a greater importance than interpretation of the words divorced from the music.

As a producer, Cale’s work here is brilliant.  It’s never heavy-handed.  There is a warmth but also a clarity to it.  He makes the instrumentals and vocals all very articulate without losing a razor-sharp edge.  It gives all these songs a sense of power and nominally polite menace barely contained under the surface.  Cale was producing other albums in this era like Patti Smith‘s Horses and (most of) The Modern Lovers‘ self-titled debut.   Cale would later go on to be a fixture at CBGB’s in the late 70s, with harder more direct rock like Sabotage/Live.

These albums aren’t “punk” but they make sure steps between a lot of earlier rock and that movement.  This collection captures the sense that whatever had happened in the 1960s was over and conveys the need for something new.  As one other reviewer on RateYourMusic (drifterdk) wrote, “The paranoia, the ennui, the boredom, the restlessness, the drugs, the heavy politics, the terrorism, the wars, the unrest, the dissatisfaction, it’s all here.”  But it’s not just that those elements are here.  Cale masterfully switches between different modes, with a rocker here, a gentle ballad there, a poppy and fun tune there.  There is something in the totality of what he achieves across this trilogy of albums that can’t be conveyed in any one song.

This music is vital.  Cale was really on a run at this point, and drugs hadn’t slowed him down yet.  Listeners wanting the glossy, happy version of 1970s rock and pop probably will want to pass on this, which gets more to the unvarnished heart of the era.