Sunday, August 22, 2010

Discography: John Cale 1970 - 1979

When people think of the Velvet Underground, they think Lou Reed first and foremost. The other brainchild, at least behind the first two records before departing, is that of multi instrumentalist John Cale. Unlike Reed, Cale never really crossed over into the mainstream. His only well known song to most would be his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" which came much later in his long, sprawling career. Cale's music goes from pastoral pop to punk rock in a span of 10 years. His collection of albums in the 70's are some of the best albums I have listened to. Here's a discography spanning from his solo debut Vintage Violence to his live album Sabatoge/Live.
Vintage Violence (1970) Cale's first solo work after parting ways with The Velvet Underground is definitely a fledgling affair. Vintage Violence is more akin to a pop recording of the 60's than the new scope and intrigue that would follow in Cale's collection of albums, but it's definitely still worthy of a listen. Cale's more serene and sweeping tracks like "Gideon's Bible" shine through past the rest of the record. With it's twangy guitars and swirling viola's, it's more akin to what he was doing with the Velvets than what he'd do on his own. It's definitely the best track on the record filled with pastoral pop songs that don't ever really stand out on their own. It's a good pop record with twee songs like "Adelaide" or the jaunty opener "Hello, There" but nothing on here lives up to what would come soon in Cale's career. A worthy beginning, but one that is easily overshadowed.
Key Track: "Gideon's Bible","Hello, There", "Fairweather Friend"

The Academy in Peril (1972) Cale's second solo offering is just as much of a strange beginning, a lead in, to what would come next for his career. The Academy in Peril is mostly instrumental and definitely a reworking of his classical training from before his time with the Velvets. Gone are the pop songs of Vintage Violence and instead we get what could easily be the brewing of classical pieces that would then solidify into the classic sound of his next album, and one of his best, Paris 1919. Anyway, this is a nice selection of tracks but nothing that really stands out as anything transcendent or memorable. It's a good meditative piece and definitely worthy of a few spins here and there, but it will never be known as Cale's go-to album for listening pleasures.

Key Track: "Brahms"

Paris 1919 (1973) If Vintage Violence was a testing ground for Cale's pop music sensibilities and The Academy in Peril is Cale's working of classical structures, then Paris 1919 is the joining of these two ideals, meeting to make a really altogether special masterpiece. Cale's finest pop music moments can all be found here and the entire album is worthy of high praise. Be it the swaying baroque of "Childs Christmas in Wales" to the outright stomp of "Macbeth", Cale can rock and roll as well as make beautiful and aching pop ballads all in one stop shop. Paris 1919 never turns it up to a level that Cale would after singing with Island Records for his next three albums, but that isn't a blemish on these songs. "Paris 1919" is easily one of the haughtiest and prettiest songs of the 70's, never feeling to self righteous, but with enough pomp and circumstance behind it's strings and french horns to make it a wonderful song. The brooding and sweeping epic "The Endless Plain of Fortune" is one of those songs that instantly hits every right note for the listener. The melodic "Half Past France" and surreal and brooding "Antarctica Starts Here" close out the album in a glorious lull that isn't anti-climactic as much as the feeling of total release and cathartic beauty. It is the best gateway into John Cale's career. It's instantly catchy and deep with emotion, subtext and tons of literary references for the nerd in us all.
Key Tracks: Masterpiece Status means all tracks are excellent. My favorite? A tie between "The Endless Plain of Fortune" and "Paris 1919"

Fear (1973) After the beautiful Paris 1919, Cale moved to Island Records and produced three fitfully brilliant and intense albums. The first of which, Fear, is the first of three to showcase Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno of Roxy Music and has some divergent sounds from earlier works. This is obvious from track one, "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend." Starting off with an intense crush of the piano and swaying back and forth from the mellow verses into a more staccato chorus and ending in a freak out that Beck would love to cover, it's definitely less flowery and baroque than anything he had done since The Velvet Underground. But those flowery, pop pieces were not long gone. Songs like the swaying "Buffalo Ballet" and the dreamscape of "Emily" prove that Cale still had a touch of beauty in his songwriting. Then there are the intense tracks. "Gun", at a sweltering 8 minutes, is as intense as anything he had done with the Velvets and definitely a huge leap forward from anything else he had done as a solo act. The thing that is fully realized on Fear is the ability to explore and defy genre. It's a schizophrenic record which would be telling of the next few Cale releases and would point toward his late 70's foray into punk rock. It a frazzled mess at first glance, but the sounds of Fear would solidify on the next album and pay off on a grand scale.
Key Tracks: "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend", "Buffalo Ballet", "Ship of Fools", "Gun", "Barracuda", "Emily"

Slow Dazzle (1975) Slow Dazzle is easily one of the coolest records you'll ever hear. A genre shifting rocker that has everything from an homage to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to a searing and dark cover of an Elvis tune, Slow Dazzle is Cale letting loose and giving us a grungy, loud and sometimes weird musical journey. Out of many albums from the 70's, it has a special charm and sound all of it's own. Kicking off with "Mr. Wilson", we get a breezy, Supertramp-esque organ and string ballad to the titular Beach Boy filled with beautiful melody and a faltering falsetto care of Cale. Equal in pop sweetness and splendor is "Taking It All Away" with Cale's voice sticking out here with it's odd but endearing timbre. "Dirtyass Rock N Roll" is as apt a title as one can get with it's boogie piano, backing vocals and overall swagger. The real highlight on the record is the cover of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel." Starting off with a swirl of Eno synths and a heavy riff, the usually sad and lamenting rockabilly number turns into a dark and sinister sounding track of regret and self loathing. It's a stunning track. The album has some strange departures like the overtly giddy "Ski Patrol" and the strange and rollicking "Rollaroll" but these rarely weigh down the brilliance of the rest of the record.

Key Tracks: "Mr. Wilson", "Taking It All Away" "Dirtyass Rock N Roll", "Heartbreak Hotel", "Guts"

Helen of Troy (1975) In the same year, Island Records released Helen of Troy. Besides showing the creative burst mid 70's Cale was going through, it also lead to his end at Island as it was released prior to him finishing it. Regardless of that, Helen of Troy has some amazing moments. It's a little less focused and uneven than the prior two records, but when it shines, it shines brightly. The titular track is a groovy, sexy track about an overweight femme fatale. "My Maria" kicks the album off with a stomping bass and piano part intertwining and swirling as we come into the epic sounding verse and chorus. The highlight of the album comes in the heart-wrenching song "I Keep A Close Watch", a riff on Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" opening line. Lyrically it's one of Cale's finest moments on Helen of Troy and of all of Cale's career. The rest of the disc is hit or miss, but I'm not sure whether to chalk that up to the rushed release of the record or to the end of Cale's firebrand output at this time. Maybe burnt out or maybe not, regardless of that, Helen of Troy lacks the luster of both Fear and Slow Dazzle.

Key Tracks: "My Maria", "Helen of Troy", "I Keep A Close Watch"

Sabatoge/Live (1979) In 1977, Cale would release Guts, a compilation of tracks from his three Island albums. The next album of new material wouldn't surface until 1979. And much like Neil Young in 1979, it was a live record. Also much like Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, Cale embraced the new and exploding punk rock scene. Recorded at CBGB's in the heart of the Television, Talking Heads and Blondie explosion, Cale keeps himself relevant in the music industry. The loud and clunky live disc is chock full of punk rock moments. From the searingly dark and sinister "Mercenaries (Ready for War)" to the funky twee grunge of "Dr. Mudd" filled with it's do do do's but backed up by a heavy riff, Cale embraced the renegade edge of punk rock and made it work for his own sound. If anything, this is the beginning of a new era for Cale rather then the end of the old one. Helen of Troy was his final record that had any semblance of his 70's career whereas Sabatoge/Live is the true beginning of Cale's career in the 80's which would go anywhere from the minimalist Music for a New Society to the spoken word of "Words for the Dying."
Key Tracks: "Mercenaries (Ready for War)", "Dr. Mudd", "Walkin' the Dog" "Sabatoge"

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