Sunday, February 18

From classic to rock, chameleon Cale ‘seduces down doors’ of music


A&E


By Michael Tatum

With John Cale, you just never know. One minute he’s putting his
academy trained musical skills to work with renowned classicists
like Leonard Bernstein and John Cage. Next thing you know, he’s Lou
Reed’s right hand man in the Velvet Underground, a revolutionary
late ’60s band that many rock critics and musicians credit for
planting the seeds of punk rock. Just how many of Aaron Copland’s
former students can claim to sacrifice a live chicken voodoo style
during a concert?

And that’s only one small part of this pop chameleon’s
unpredictable musical odyssey. But as with David Bowie, another
well-known genre-hopper, though Cale’s music has taken more than a
few left turns, those new directions haven’t always produced
consistent results. On their new two CD anthology "Seducing Down
The Door," Rhino Records sorts through the flotsam and jetsam of
Cale’s 17 album career and compiles the best of his more than 20
years as a solo artist – and inadvertently, the worst.

Given that Cale quit the Velvet Underground because Lou Reed
wanted to take the band in a more accessible direction, it seems
odd that for his first solo projects, Cale reached back to his
classical roots. His 1970 recordings for Columbia, at least as
evidenced here, prove his craft needed some fine tuning. But score
a point for artistic re-evolution – after those two records
flopped, he took more or less the same musical ideas to Warner
Bros. and perfected them.

"The Protégé," the only intrusion here from his mostly
improvised collaboration with keyboardist Terry Riley, "The Church
Of Anthrax" (Columbia, 1970), opens this collection with an
embarrassing thud; it’s the kind of throwaway that a moderately
gifted beginning piano student could have tossed off in five
minutes. But "Days Of Steam," from his own instrumental record "The
Academy In Peril" (Warners, 1972), fares much better, most likely
because Cale probably sat down to write it before he stepped foot
into the recording studio. It’s simple, but Cale’s perky viola
keeps the buoyant melody line afloat for the song’s brief two
minutes.

Similarly, the two soggy songs culled from Cale’s ersatz Phil
Spector effort "Vintage Violence" (also from his Columbia catalog)
fall completely flat. But three years later, Cale tightened up the
songwriting and, working with the members of Little Feat, made his
orchestral fantasies come true on the compelling "Paris 1919," his
last album for Warners.

At this point, his lyrics were still frustratingly impenetrable
- who knows what "I’m the church and I’ve come/To claim you with my
iron drum" has to do with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles,
ostensibly the subject of the album’s title track. But the
irresistible catchiness of the music cancels out such complaints,
from the exhilarating sweep of "Paris 1919" (featuring backing,
incidentally, from the UCLA Orchestra), to the wistful, evocative
"Andalucia." Two charming childhood reminisces round out the songs
from this period: the lovely "Dixieland and Dixie" (actually an
outtake) and the winsome "Child’s Christmas In Wales."

Lured back into the domain of rock by the excitement of
returning to live performance, Cale hooked up with Roxy Music
guitarist Phil Manzanera and synthesizer wizard/genius Brian Eno
for the next phase of his career. This meeting of the art-rock
giants resulted in the most exciting music Cale had done since his
days with the Velvets. If anything, these songs constitute this
set’s real reason for living; it’s no accident that these tracks,
recorded during the two years when Cale was under contract to
Island Records, comprise one quarter (10 tracks) of this
anthology.

Abrasive, harsh, but somehow still hooky, these visionary songs
still sound ahead of their time: Manzanera’s hair-raising solo on
the gory detective tale "Gun," which Eno then filtered through his
keyboard, set a nearly untoppable precedent for guitar anarchists
to come. Cale’s demented characterizations in "Fear Is A Man’s Best
Friend" (a paean to urban paranoia) and "Guts" (a bizzare tale of
domestic violence) still retain a grim power. At their best, these
post-modern horror stories cut deep, lasting impressions, made all
the compelling by the perverse, unsettling music surrounding
them.

Still, the compilers could have selected tracks from this period
(which produced three albums worth of material) with a little more
care – the dreadful tone poem "The Jeweller," in which the title
character’s eye mutates into a "perfectly formed vagina" inspires
guffaws, while the gloppy "I Keep A Close Watch" ("… on this
heart of mine") is as maudlin as its title would suggest. And four
tracks from "Fear" and two from the subpar "Helen Of Troy" rather
than the other way around would have been preferable. Nevertheless,
the first CD, which ends with Cale leaving Island for Miles
Copland’s I.R.S. label, holds up after repeated listenings, despite
the uneven opening and closing tracks.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that immediately
afterward, the quality of Cale’s music took a severe nosedive.
"Eclectic" at best and unlistenable at worst, Cale’s post-1970s
output became so cold, mannered and calculated that the Village
Voice’s Robert Christgau joked that Cale was "[providing] further
proof that he studied at Juilliard." Unfortunately for consumers,
the second CD devotes most of its 70-plus minutes documenting this
depressing deterioration. Needless to say, hardly anything here
comes close to seducing down a door, let alone pushing one slightly
ajar.

No other performance exhibits how far Cale had fallen than the
inexplicably included live remake of the Velvets’ "Waiting for the
Man." On the classic 1967 studio version, Cale pounded the piano
keys mercilessly and seemingly indiscriminately; one got the
feeling he didn’t care one way or another whether or not his
fingers hit the right keys – an appropriate tactic for a song about
going downtown to score heroin. On his 1984 deconstruction,
recorded with an over-rehearsed crack studio band, Cale tickles the
ivories as if he thought the Sex Pistols would have been a better
band had Scott Joplin been their keyboardist. His inappropriate
barrelhouse borrowings and garish, conservatory-learned flourishes
show just how disconnected he had become from his glorious rock and
roll past.

If this second CD proves anything, it’s that Cale works best
with other people. He’s living proof of the old adage that milk
tastes like whatever it sits next to in the refrigerator. With
Little Feat and Roxy Music (not to mention the Velvet Underground)
keeping his pretensions in check, he can create some groundbreaking
and innovative music.

Leave him to his own devices however, and he’s likely to serve
up tripe like the absolute rock bottom 1989 effort "Words For The
Dying," an overbearing setting of four Dylan Thomas poems to
orchestral music (not one of which, surprise surprise, are included
here).

Perhaps sensing this himself, Cale’s next two records, the last
excerpted here, found him making fine music again with some old
friends.

With Brian Eno, who himself hadn’t come up with anything
exciting for some time, he concocted the entertaining but
lightweight "Wrong Way Up," represented here by the shiny synth-pop
of "Cordoba" and "One Word" (though strangely, not "Been There,
Done That," the only song Cale has ever gotten on American
radio).

Even better was his first collaboration with Lou Reed in more
than 20 years, "Songs For Drella," a song cycle about his friend
and mentor Andy Warhol, who had passed away two years earlier. The
two songs included here don’t resonate quite as richly outside of
their original context, but Cale’s in-joke "The Trouble With
Classicists," a song lamenting the by-the-rules mentality of those
who "stay too long in school," works as an unintentional irony
about this sometimes rebel, sometimes reactionary’s
limitations.

All in all, a better than average compilation, though one wishes
Rhino had done what Warner Bros. did with Prince and sold the two
volumes separately.

For those interested in Cale but would rather spend their hard
earned bucks on a more consistent configuration, Island has a fine,
single CD compilation entitled "Guts," available as a British
import. Also, Warner Archives recently put a CD reissue of "Paris
1919" on the shelves.

But for the die-hard completists, "Seducing Down The Door," like
other Rhino reissues, is beautifully packaged, well annotated and
the audio sounds superb.

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