seemed like his decision to work exclusively on music for theatre, ballet
and movies was final, but John Cale decided to give us a surprise by recording
another album of songs. Almost two albums, in fact, if we take into account
a very nice EP - transparently titled 5 Tracks - which came out a few months
before HoboSapiens. A quick look at the cover of Walking On Locusts - the
last CD of songs he released - confirmed my memory: it had come out six years
ago. So it's not really important to determine whether all the media attention
has been due to the sheer pleasure of seeing him back or to the fact that
Emi - John Cale's new label - is maybe a bit anxious about the whole matter.
I remember correctly, Walking On Locusts had not been greeted so warmly. It
wasn't by any means a bad record, though it could be said that it could have
benefited by a bit more pruning in the choral department at the arranging
stage. Was it a rock record? Sure it was - if we consider Brian Wilson and
Randy Newman as people who release rock records. Or if we regard Paris 1919
as a rock record - and isn't it the album that many consider to be one of
Cale's undisputed masterpieces?
was ten years ago that the brief - and so heatedly discussed - Velvet Underground
reunion took place. Then came the live album titled MCMXCIII and, two years
later, the 5 CD box Peel Slowly And See. It's pretty obvious that if John
Cale and Lou Reed had not been such an important part of the Velvet Underground
the attention received by their solo output would have been considerably less.
But fame and credits were not divided according to the work they had done
in the group. It's not even necessary to mention La Monte Young and Tony Conrad.
Listening to those first two Velvet Underground albums - and to those musical
ideas, for which the real inventor did not always receive proper credit -
is all it takes. And I think I'm not wrong in saying that it was these ideas
that people like the members of Can and the pre-Roxy Music Brian Eno and Phil
Manzanera reacted to.
say that media space and fame are built as much off the stage as on it is
an incredibly banal consideration. It's better to argue about other matters.
For instance, it's funny how - while the Velvet Underground's notoriety is
mainly attributable to the group experimental side - the passing of time seems
to have made opaque for most the enormous difference (in terms of depth, ambition,
results) that exists between the band's four studio albums. Which goes hand
in hand with the fact that many consider the Velvet Underground as a sort
of "garage" band (just listen to those who are - supposedly - influenced
by them). We could also notice how Lou Reed's commercial success has been
due to works that were not related to the group's more experimental side.
Check Transformer (1972), the glam album produced by David Bowie (and Mick
Ronson!); the guitaristic assault of Rock'n'Roll Animal (1974); the metal-tinged
r&b produced by Steve Katz on Sally Can't Dance (1974); the limpid rock
music - as dry as some black music - on the Godfrey Diamond-produced Coney
Island Baby (1976). If we now add the colossal input by Bob Ezrin on the Berlin
masterpiece (1973) it will be clear why Lou Reed's music became so poor as
soon as he decided he had grown too big to accept any outside input.
Walk On The Wild Side (and the Honda commercial) is only half the story. While
Lou Reed has learned more and more about how to use the studio, the technology
and the sounds - it could be said that the technical side is the best part
of his later work - the opposite seems to be true for John Cale: a musical
genius who seems to possess a kind of attention so bright and intense that
it has by necessity to be short, and so it cannot sustain the work that still
has to be done. Though curiously the same doesn't seem to be true for those
records that he produced (and on some of which he played), especially those
released under Nico's name: The Marble Index (1968), Desertshore (1971), The
End (1974), Camera Obscura (1985). So it's the albums where he received considerable
outside help - such as Paris 1919 (from 1973), produced by Chris Thomas, and
Honi Soit (1981), produced by Mike Thorn and recorded and mixed by Harvey
Goldberg - that are those which work best as records. Of course, we have to
add the superb and one-of-a-kind Music For A New Society (1982).
have few doubts about the fact that the corpus of songs written by John Cale
is vastly superior to those written by Lou Reed, and absolutely none if we
take into consideration only those which were written after the two men started
drinking decaf. And I think this to be true as much for the music that (surprise!)
for the lyrics. Considering what I said earlier about the studio LPs, I think
it's better to catch John Cale live, possibly solo. A good approximation is
the ideal anthology of Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992), while John Cale
Comes Alive (1984) - with a mediocre group - is to be avoided at all costs.
I would have preferred an official recording of the solo tour from the previous
year, when he had played - with a lot of depth and chilling pathos - his song
called Only Time Will Tell, which in its only official recorded appearance
(on the live album Sabotage, 1979) had been sung by a female voice.
Cale's voice is highly personal and gifted with many resources: a natural
voice, much probably, which has received more latitude from musical education.
I heard John Cale in concert twenty years ago, and I found that his proverbial
delicacy and ferociousness had been expressed with no trace of mannerisms.
I'm glad to say that the same was true for the concert I attended in 2001.
Cale played also two new songs ("on my next record", he said): a
ballad in medium tempo played on guitar which would have not been out of place
on Slow Dazzle (1975) and whose refrain - "things you do in Denver when
you're dead" (after the movie?) had sounded to me like a good title;
and a solemn and intense ballad played on piano, slow and mysterious - I decided
there and then that its title was Over Her Head.
Tracks confirmed to me that Cale was in fine form - he was his usual self,
but with no signs of déjà vu. Verses is a good intro, Waiting
For Blonde a cryptic tale, Chums Of Dumpty (We All Are) - listen to the beautiful
bass part at the end - has a mysterious text even if the music is quite communicative.
Then the record lifts off - E Is Missing has fine strings and Wilderness Approaching
uses piano and vocals for an almost-gospel approach (prepare your handkerchiefs).
A dry, quite mechanical rhythm section.
it was with great expectations that I started listening to HoboSapiens. The
first listening session really puzzled me (and also the second, and the third,
too). Let's immediately discard the two attempts at trying to do something
"commercial" - the rock'n'roll track called Reading My Mind (especially
irritating for an Italian listener) and Bicycle, which sports almost the whole
Brian Eno family and which wouldn't be out of place as the soundtrack for
a TV commercial: Cale has never had any ideas about what makes something commercial,
and his attempts in this direction have provoked more puzzlement and amusement
than irritation. But it's for the whole duration of the record that the production
(by Cale himself and Nick Franglen - it doesn't take a genius to decide who
did what) imprisons everything inside a tiny digital cell - everything get
smaller - while everything - the voices, the sampled rhythms, the whole CD
- is absolutely short of air.
still want to twist pop out of shape. But the only way I feel comfortable
doing that is to be myself, and I can't just hop, skip and jump around contemporary
tastes. Loops are what people are interested in nowadays. My next album will
have a lot of that, I'm really getting to like them, but what I like about
looping is not what everybody else likes. I really love drums that are slowed
down, that's all I need." So said John Cale on page 265 of What's Welsh
For Zen, his autobiography published in 1999.
this what really happened? I don't think so. Even after quite a few listenings,
there's a problematic - and extremely annoying - tension between the melodies
and the vocal parts - the songs - and the timbres and the technical means
which on paper should dress and complement them. Which makes me really sorry,
since most of the songs are of a very high quality, and in some ways, somewhat,
they almost manage to work. (It's the usual "modern world" by Cale,
complex and paranoid, where rare splashes of clarity are extracted with great
pain from the confusion.) One could put the blame on the Pro Tools system
- sure, recording "in the box" without costly plug-ins won't give
one those results that we can call "beautiful sounds" - meaning
that not in the hi-fi sense, but as in "a consciously designed aesthetical
dimension which gradually reveals itself over time". But the mediocrity
of this side of the work brings us to very sad issue such as: the quality
of one's attention; the overabundance of stimuli; the superficiality of the
perceived aesthetical dimension; the increasingly shallower perception of
the tridimensional plane of sound and of the complex relationship between
the different planes and the narration. Welcome to the modern world!
was quite surprised that I listened to HoboSapiens as often as I did. Zen
is a good opening, the less said about Reading My Mind the better, Things
is the song that I had already heard live - there is also a "disturbed"
version, called Things X. Then things get better, with the majestic Look Horizon
(I think maybe only Cale is currently able to write a couplet as the one that
brings this song to its close), the melodic Magritte, with its strings and
its limpid melody, the reggae Archimedes and then Caravan, a very fine track,
a slowed-down rock-blues that I would like to listen to with a guitar à
la Chris Spedding. Let's skip Bicycle and there we have Twilight Zone and
Letter From Abroad - the latter song would have not been out of place on Howard
Shore's soundtrack to The Naked Lunch. After Thing X, the excellent Over Her
Head closes the album, on piano as it was played at the concert.
Beppe Colli 2003
| Nov. 10, 2003