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.

Song of the Day, January 21: Graham Greene by John Cale

CaleGreeneToday’s song is Graham Greene by John Cale. After leaving the Velvet Underground, Cale demonstrated the breadth of his talents on his first few outings, ranging from smart, off-kilter pop to avant rock to smartly minimalist instrumentals. His fourth project remains one of his finest, the quietly powerful Paris 1919. A literary series of meditations on the modern condition, it features some of his best vocal work and smartest writing.

One of the standout tracks is Graham Greene. The famous novelist is a perfect symbol for Cale’s themes, as both a product of the Empire and a chronicler of its darker aspects and slow, inevitable demise. Cale ponders meeting Greene in a variety of settings, cleverly looking at that decay while ironically celebrating the stiff-upper-lip façade that kept things going. With a charming horn line and sprightly instrumentation, he creates a flawless mood, dissecting nostalgia with dark delight.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, October 9: Lay My Love by Eno / Cale

Brian-Eno-And-John-Cale-Wrong-Way-UpToday’s song is Lay My Love. part of the short but delightful collaboration between Brian Eno and John Cale. Cale is the avant-garde pre-punk multi-instrumentalist who co-founded the Velvet Underground, only to be pushed aside when his vision and Lou Reed’s ceased to gel. Brian Eno is the iconoclastic musical experimenter who co-founded Roxy Music, only to be pushed aside when his vision and Bryan Ferry’s ceased to gel.

The two built brilliant, eclectic, highly varied solo careers and established themselves as pioneering producers. With their shared interests in sonic experimentation, deconstructed pop, and beautiful music, a  joint disc seemed like a great idea. Wrong Way Up, the one result of that partnership, is a hit-and-miss affair that suffers from two strong wills battling rather than meshing. The row of daggers between the portraits of the two men on the cover is no accident.

When it works, however, it’s lovely, and it never works better than the gorgeous Lay My Love. A swirling, sonic treat and a simple love song over a complex musical theme, it’s a mini-masterpiece that ranks highly in both the Eno and Cale catalogs. A post New Wave, proto-electronica, art pop ballad, Lay My Love is a celebration of human emotion from two masters of disguise.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, July 10: Perfect by John Cale

CalePerfectToday’s song is Perfect by John Cale. Since his unceremonious ouster from the Velvet Underground, Cale has regularly turned out amazing albums ranging from the experimental to solid rock. Four decades into his solo career he released blackAcetate, one of his strongest offerings.

Perfect is a deceptively simple love song. Cale is in strong voice as he chants a series of declarations ranging from outright need to self deprecation to celebration. Energetic, catchy, and compelling, the song shows off a joyous, almost whimsical side of the famously avant garde musician.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 16: Helen of Troy by John Cale

CaleHelenToday’s song is Helen of Troy by John Cale, the title track from the last of three albums he recorded for Island Records. Cale had done the initial work on the album between producing Horses for Patti Smith and leaving on a tour of Italy. Island took the tapes and released them basically as-is, including songs Cale would have discarded or at least improved. He observes

It could have been a great album. […] I was spending eighteen hours a day in the studio. When I got back, I found the record company had gone ahead and released what amounted to demo tapes. The trouble was that Island had their own ideas of what that album should sound like. They wanted to include songs I don’t particularly like, but it was also an impertinent assumption on my part that I was capable of managing myself.

Cale would rework some of his favorites on later releases. This track works well as it is, a disturbing look at obsession and conflicting ideas of beauty. He sings the main lyrics in one of his most bombastic deliveries, mixing this with snide asides spoken in a creepy, campy lisp. The effect is jarring and disturbing, fitting the dramatic musical setting and creating one of Cale’s most offbeat but effective songs.

Enjoy this dark gem today.

Album of the Week, December 29: The Velvet Underground and Nico

VUNicoMirrorThe originality and influence of The Velvet Underground & Nico cannot be overstated. Perhaps Brian Eno’s observation about this album fifteen years after its release has become a cliché, but it carries a fundamental truth.

The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band

Lou Reed was a singer, guitarist, English lit scholar, and house songwriter for Pickwick. He met John Cale, a classically trained musician who left Wales to study with some leading lights in the avant garde music world. When they decided to form a band, they invited Reed’s college roommate, Sterling Morrison, to join the crew. They experimented with sounds and material, eventually adding drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker and settling on the name the Velvet Underground. They came to the attention of Andy Warhol, who became their manager and incorporated them into his roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He sponsored the band’s early studio sessions and became the producer of record for their first album.

Title The Velvet Underground & Nico
Act The Velvet Underground
Label Verve Release Date March 12, 1967
Producer Andy Warhol
U.S. Chart  171 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Sunday Morning
  2. I’m Waiting For the Man
  3. Femme Fatale
  4. Venus In Furs
  5. Run Run Run
  6. All Tomorrow’s Parties
  7. Heroin
  8. There She Goes Again
  9. I’ll Be Your Mirror
  10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
  11. European Son

The actual credit for the production is hotly debated, although both Reed and Morrison have agreed that Warhol deserves his due. His influence allowed the group to record what they wanted how they wanted to, and his money helped ensure that the result was released. He also insisted on the addition of German singer Nico, another move debated by critics but significant in the unique sound of the debut album. Tom Wilson — superstar producer of artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Simon and Garfunkel to the Mothers of Invention — stepped in for the album’s last track recorded, Sunday Morning, and some reworking of original tracks. The words and music were fundamentally Lou Reed’s, and his influence is critical to the sound of the album. John Cale is widely recognized as the arranger of the sound and the one who really pushed the musical envelope. Regardless of who gets the official credit, the combined work of these creative forces resulted in something magical.

The VU were known for gritty, experimental, noisy music (something that Reed and Cale would both explore in their long solo careers as well). Those elements are significant and run through many of the tracks, but that reputation overlooks the complexity and outright beauty of much of the album. The two closing tracks hew closest to the legend. The Black Angel’s Death Song, co-written by Cale, is a dark tale set to stark music, with hissing sound effects and a claustrophobic atmosphere. European Son, credited to the whole band, is a bitter kiss-off of a song with a roots rock feel that devolves into a chaos of dissonant jamming and found sounds. While both songs were massively influential on future musical generations — and pointedly put last to be the sound that lingered — they only tell part of the story.

The rest of the album can be split into two categories: the Nico songs and the urban songs. Reed wrote all of them (with Cale sharing credit on Sunday Morning), but it’s telling to see which were shared with the woman who was never quite a member of the band. The opening Sunday Morning was intended for Nico, but she was relegated to backing vocals on the final version. A thing of fragile beauty, it shows off Reed’s flawless sense of pop music and the complexity of Cale’s musical themes. It also hardly prepares the listener for the complicated journey to come.

The other three Nico songs feature her distinctive stylings as lead vocalist. Femme Fatale is a wonderful song of longing nicely suited to her smoky delivery. I’ll Be Your Mirror is one of Reed’s finest straightforward love songs, and Nico manages to capture a joyous ache that resonates perfectly. Her high point is the austere All Tomorrow’s Parties a song of desperation and loneliness that her Teutonic majesty absolutely masters. Reed could easily have sung any of these songs (and did in live shows after Nico’s departure), but they were well selected for the dour chanteuse. Her vocals added a complexity to the album that helped it truly shine.

The rest of the album consists of Reed’s snapshots of life, sung in his equally distinctive, often deadpan voice. His goal, he observed, was not to shock — although the unusual for the time subject matter often did — but to reflect what he saw in the world around him. If there are books and poems about such things, he reasoned, why not songs? I’m Waiting for the Man is a perfect second track, taking the listener from the morning reflections of the opener to a gritty urban streetcorner. Musically and lyrically flawless, it tells its tale with bracing honesty. Venus In Furs is a retelling of a 19th Century novel of sexual experimentation. Reed’s narration is backed by haunting music, punctuated by a viola and tambourine feature that sounds like the repeated crack of a whip.

Run Run Run and There She Goes Again seem as though they could easily fit on other 60s rock albums. The former has a solid blues base and catchy hook that drive it forward. The latter has an almost doo-wop feel and great harmonies by the whole band. Lyrically, however, they are distinctly VU, telling dark tales of despair, addiction, dependency, hopelessness, and violence. Honest and stark, they form the root of much of Reed’s work — and influence over future musicians — for the rest of his career.

There’s no single masterpiece on an album this strong, but the centerpiece is clearly Heroin. Capturing the darkest themes of the album and making them powerfully personal, Reed constructs a compelling narrative. Musically, the band capture the cycle of addiction flawlessly, with ache, tension, release, and despair resonating in every note. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s one of the most important songs in rock. And so it goes with this amazing album. Nearly four decades after it was recorded, it remains fresh, compelling and unique.

FURTHER LISTENING: The VU released four amazingly important and fairly disparate albums. All of them are worth knowing. White Light/White Heat is the most like their reputation — experimental, jarring, dark, dissonant, challenging. Cale was shoved out of the band after that and the sound became much more distinctly Reed’s. The Velvet Underground is a wonderful set of edgy rock and potent pop; Loaded is more uneven but has some classic songs and sets the stage for the singer’s solo career. Reed, Cale, and Nico all have had impressive solo careers which we’ll look at more closely in future albums of the week.

Song of the Day, December 3: Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground

VelvetSundayToday’s song is Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground. It was the last track recorded for their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Producer Tom Wilson requested an additional song with more potential as a single, so Lou Reed and John Cale penned this track. It was written specifically with guest singer Nico’s vocals in mind. Although she sang it live with the band, the recorded version features Reed on lead vocals with Nico supplying a haunting backdrop.

Although never a big seller, the album was extremely influential, providing templates for almost every counter-culture pop and rock movement of the next three decades. Sunday Morning shows off a different side of the band. It’s a reflective ballad — slow, gentle, and thoughtful. It demonstrates musical themes that Reed would explore further with the band after Cale’s departure and a tenderness that he wove into the best of his later solo work. Cale eschews his avant-garde tendencies for a hypnotic musical backdrop that would also figure in some of his best solo work.Sid&Susie

Watch out, the world’s behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call It’s nothing at all
Sunday morning and I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know

As the poppiest moment on the album, Sunday Morning has been covered many times. Athens, GA band Oh-OK recorded a version after Matthew Sweet joined as guitarist. When Sweet and Bangles vocalist Susanna Hoffs created their Sid & Susie personas to record a great set of 60s and 70s pop covers, they included this track. With Hoffs’ bittersweet vocals and Sweet’s spot-on power pop production, they turn in a version that rivals the original.

Enjoy this amazing song in its original form and in a loving tribute today.

Song of the Day, October 22: Chinese Envoy by John Cale

CaleCEnvoyLiveToday’s song is Chinese Envoy by John Cale. It was originally recorded for his stark, experimental album Music For A New Society. Like most of that album, it was created on the fly in the studio. A tale told in fragments, it hints of intrigue, power, and danger, with an overlay of sorrow.

She was a princess, much lower than people thought
A master of nothing a mistress of something she thought

Chinese Envoy fares better than most of the album with the original version featuring delicate guitar work and minimal avant noise. Like the best of Music, however, it was much upgraded as a regular part of Cale’s live show. With a simple piano backing and a clear vocal, the story is more brittle and harrowing. This was captured perfectly on Cale’s 1992 concert disc Fragments of a Rainy Season.

Enjoy this powerful live performance today.

Song of the Day, July 5: Thoughtless Kind by John Cale

CaleThoghtlessToday’s song is Thoughtless Kind by John Cale. After a five-year break (during which he produced albums for many other acts) and two loud, angry albums, Cale returned to his avant garde roots with 1982’s Music For A New Society. The songs were almost entirely composed on the fly in the studio and the production work was stark and experimental — not unlike his work for Nico on The Marble Index. The result was what he likens to method acting, focused on “the terror of the moment.”

Thoughtless Kind is a brief fragment that perfectly captures that spirit. Dwelling on betrayal and shallow relationships, it’s a dark song even in Cale’s catalogue.

If you grow tired of the friends you make
In case you mean to say something else
Say they were the best of times you ever had
The best of times with the thoughtless kind

As with most of the album, the production both enhances and distracts. Thoughtless Kind is better served as a stark guitar ballad, a presentation Cale perfected on the tour that resulted in his stunning live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season. He continues to perform it this way in his shows today.

Enjoy this live version (from a 2010 show in London) of a great song today.

Song of the Day, April 10: (I Keep A) Close Watch by John Cale

John Cale Keep A Close WatchToday’s song is (I Keep A) Close Watch by John Cale. One of his starkest and most beautiful songs, it is also one of his favorites, appearing on two albums and a staple of his live shows.

The original Close Watch was included on his 1975 album Helen of Troy. It has a powerful vocal but the production is a bit heavy-handed, nearly drowning the simple beauty of the lyrics. Cale himself is notoriously unhappy with the takes that Island chose to release for this album. Seven years later, he recorded it for Music For A New Society. A truly experimental album, all the songs seem dismantled and brutally reassembled. Cale considers it his “most tormented” work, a pretty strong statement given his catalog. This version is better suited, but the odd instrumentation that appears halfway through (including a burst of bagpipes ?!?) is distracting.

Cale’s live performances of the song are the best. Ever since 1975, he has presented it as a simple piano and voice number, perfectly serving the quiet darkness of the lyrics. A stunning version is included on his 1992 live opus Fragments Of A Rainy Season.

Never win and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between you and me
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

Enjoy this powerful live version of a darkly beautiful song today.

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