Album of the Week, July 12: Fragments of a Rainy Season by John Cale

CaleFragmentsJohn Cale grew up in a small Welsh mining town. His passion for music manifested itself in a love of early rock’n’roll and a talent for viola. He parlayed the latter into formal training in London, developing a taste for the avant garde while he learned to play an array of other instruments. With the help of Aaron Copland he moved to New York to continue his training, working with John Cage and La Monte Young, among others. He also met someone who shared his rock-oriented interests, and he and Lou Reed formed the first incarnation of the Velvet Underground.

One of the key elements to the VU sound was the tension between Reed’s gritty rock realism and Cale’s avant garde inclinations. That tension led to Reed effectively firing Cale after two albums. In the two dozen years that followed, John Cale built a solid reputation in the music world. He released nearly twenty albums — solo in the studio, live, and in a variety of collaborations — exploring sounds from pastoral rock to noise to chamber pop to electronic experimentation. He was also an in-demand producer and session musician, working with former VU chanteuse Nico, Nick Drake, the Modern Lovers, Iggy Pop, and a dizzying array of others. In 1991, he began a solo tour, effectively singing a greatest hits show with only his own piano or acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The album that captured those shows was Fragments of A Rainy Season, a stunning overview of a complicated musical history.

Title Fragments of a Rainy Season
Act John Cale
Label Hannibal Release Date September 25, 1992
Producer John Cale and Jean-Michel Reusser
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. A Child’s Christmas In Wales
  2. Dying On the Vine
  3. Cordoba
  4. Darling I Need You
  5. Paris 1919
  6. Guts
  7. Fear (Is A Man’s Best Friend)
  8. Ship of Fools
  9. Leaving It Up to You
  10. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
  11. Thoughtless Kind
  12. On A Wedding Anniversary
  13. Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed
  14. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
  15. Buffalo Ballet
  16. Chinese Envoy
  17. Style It Takes
  18. Heartbreak Hotel
  19. (I Keep A) Close Watch
  20. Hallelujah

Joseph Kosuth’s stark black-and-white sleeve design sets the stage nicely. These are deceptively simple renditions of tracks from the whole of Cale’s career. Despite the stripped-down presentation, Cale invests the performances with all the passion of the studio originals. In many cases — notably the oft-reworked (I Keep A) Close Watch — the bare elegance shows off his lyrical prowess in ways that his experimental studio leanings sometimes obscured. Close Watch aside, none of these tracks is a replacement for the original; instead, they serve as a brilliant amplification. Cale covers his own songs, shining new light on old favorites.

The tracks range across most of Cale’s solo years. He skips his first three outings, wisely omitting the folky excursions and instrumental tracks that helped him find his rock voice but don’t measure up to his later catalog. The opening track is a lovely rendition of A Child’s Christmas In Wales; it’s a smart start, coming from his first truly wonderful album, Paris 1919, and giving a nod to one of his heroes, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

The bulk of the songs come from his most rich creative burst, the four albums he released from 1973 – 75. These account for over half the tracks, and demonstrate the array of textures and characters Cale has crafted. His quirky, personal approach to rock in the early 70s is the foundation of his reputation and the backbone of his later — often more experimental — recordings. He also reclaims Leaving It Up to You, a track Island insisted on dropping from his last disc for the label due to the lyrical reference to Sharon Tate; the scorching acoustic rendition is an emotional highlight of the set.

Cale demonstrates the genius that has kept him in demand by varying the settings of the songs. The first seven are played on piano, with his performances ranging from gently melodic to key-bashingly deranged. He wraps up this set with a disturbing take on Fear (Is A Mans’s Best Friend), proving that less can definitely be more in the right hands.

He switches to guitar for the next four songs, lending them a more intimate feel that works very well for these tracks. As with the piano songs, he varies his approach, showing off nice skills on an instrument not usually associated with his work.

When Cale returns to the piano, he launches into a trio of Dylan Thomas poems from his Falklands meditation album Words for the Dying. He invests them with such power that they seem orchestral despite the simple instrumentation. The Fragments rendition of Do Not Go Gentle… is a standout and manages to outshine the original with its essential power. The remaining piano tracks cover varied terrain much like the first set. Cale gives each song special attention throughout, providing snapshots of his remarkable career.

Besides the Dylan Thomas pieces, Cale only includes three songs from his solo work between 1975 and 1990. They are nicely chosen, however, and reflect his sporadic recording and varied approaches well. He also includes two smart selections from his significant body of collaborative work. Cordoba is a lovely glimpse at his tense but delightful 1990 album Wrong Way Up with Brian Eno. Near the end of the show, he includes Style It Takes. It’s a perfect choice, recorded on his first work with Lou Reed in over two decades, the touching, troublesome Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella.

Cale also includes two covers in the set. He first recorded his dark take on the Elvis Presley classic Heartbreak Hotel on a live album (with Kevin Ayers, Eno, and Nico) in 1974; he reworked it for his first 1975 release, Slow Dazzle. This piano-and-voice version captures the harrowing energy that he has always invested in the song. Curiously — given his skill as a writer and composer — he wraps up the album with another cover, but it’s a flawless choice. Cale is famous for crafting the classic setup of Leonard Cohen’s masterwork Hallelujah. His evocative delivery of this modern, secular hymn brings the show to a close on a powerful note indeed.

FURTHER LISTENING: John Cale has an impressive catalog of work. Almost every album bearing his name has something wonderful to offer (with the early 80s’ Honi Soit and Caribbean Sunset — both conspicuously absent from Fragments — being the exceptions).  That said, there are a few standouts:

  • Paris 1919 (1973) is his first masterpiece, a quietly powerful set of meditative, eccentric songs.
  • The 1974 – 75 Island trilogy — Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy — are all solid. Cale was not happy with Island’s rushed production of Helen, but it’s still one of his finest collections.
  • It’s difficult listening music, described by Cale himself as his “most tormented” album, but Music For A New Society (1982) shows off his melding of avant garde instincts with pop structures brilliantly.
  • For all the tension that accompanied its creation — or perhaps because of it — Wrong Way Up (1990) with Brian Eno is probably the best pop record either man has recorded.
  • Cale continues to release fun, fascinating, often challenging albums today, albeit with less frequency. Of his most recent half dozen, Walking On Locusts (1996) and blackAcetate (2005) are clear leaders.

Cale has recorded for decades on many different labels, so finding a good overview is tricky. Fragments actually represents his work as well as any compilation of original versions. The two-disc Rhino set Seducing Down the Door presents a sampling of the original versions from the same time period very well.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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