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John Cale

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Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
3 stars It's well known that the punk rock movement resulted from a couple of NYC garage bands touring England in the late 70s when British youth were restless and looking for something new. But what is often overlooked is that even as soon as the early 70s a similar tendency towards the harsh and urban had already been taking place in the music of many British art rockers. John Cale, David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Phil Manzenera, Peter Hammil, and others were increasingly releasing recordings that were influenced by the fading of the hippie movement as well as the late 60s work of The Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. To say that Cale was 'influenced' by either of these artists is totally misleading though in that he was an early founder of the Underground as well as a producer for Iggy and the Stooges. Unlike the other art rockers who were becoming more punk, Cale was a part of this dark side of rock from the beginning.

Not all is punky and harsh on here though. Many of these songs recall the beautiful pastoral air of earlier Cale albums. Some of these more laid back songs such as Buffalo Ballet and Ship of Fools are classic sentimental Cale masterpieces, while others such as Emily and You Know More than I Know come across as maudlin and insincere. Of the more rockin proto-punk numbers, Gun takes the cake. This is one of the best hard rockers that John has ever recorded. I'll never forget the first time I heard Gun, music this harsh was hard to come by in the early to mid 70s. Phil Manzenera's ultra-treated Enofied guitar slashes and burns while the barroom piano bangs away and Cale spits out harsh narrative lyrics that are reminiscent of modern film noir masterpiece Fargo. Bad people with bad plans that go wrong amid a wave of stupid violence and mayhem. Towards the end of the song Eno's guitar treatments take over the chaos, Phil Manzenera's amazing guitaristics never sounded better. Unfortunately there are also a couple other songs on here that are just plain bad.

If you are a John Cale fan, there are some good songs on here and it is well worth owning just for that.

Report this review (#257782)
Posted Friday, December 25, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars You want to call this punk? No sirree Bob, it's a very different kettle of fish. But with this album, John Cale took the early 1970s singer-songwriter boom (ever so sensitive and clever) by the neck and beat it to a pulp, right in front of your eyes. The opening track, "Fear Is A Man's Best Friend" says it all. Aggressive, almost Lisztean piano chords make way for a melody so smooth you'd be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled upon quite a nice pop album, actually. But if you've learnt your rock history, you'll already be aware this song is going to end in a bout of panicky, barely coherent screaming. 'We're already dead, / just not yet in the ground', as its lyrics go.

Oh, if the entire album were as strong as its original A-side, I'd gladly call it another classic and award it five stars. For my money, Cale has never topped that magical sequence which runs from "Fear Is A Man's Best Friend" to "Buffalo Ballet" (a prime candidate for the loveliest melody he's written), "Barracuda" (that must be the great Archie Leggat on bass! Or is it Cale himself?) and "Ship Of Fools". The latter sounds like a track which accidentally fell off PARIS 1919. I'd definitely include it in any single-disc 'Best Of', but what's it about, really? 'We picked up Dracula in Memphis, / it was just about the break of day, / and then hastily prayed for our souls to be saved, / there was something in the air that made us kind of weary...' The way Cale sings these words is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes (and to think there are people who can't stand his voice!) but surely it's magnificent nonsense poetry?

Unfortunately, even the A-side contains a dud: the Eno-influenced 'Emily', with Eno himself generating ocean waves in the background. 'Dare to be boring, dare to annoy people' is what Cale must have thought. On the original B-side, things get even worse. "The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy" is superior pop, and "You Know More Than I Know" sounds gloriously sad, but the eight minute "Gun" is a totally forgettable rocker, Phil Manzanera's guitar solo firmly going nowhere, and "Momamma Scuba", the album closer, is annoying; nothing more.

So there we are: six tracks which, taken together, definitely warrant five stars, and another three that are little more than filler. If you don't own FEAR yet, I suggest you get it as part of the magnificent two-disc compilation THE ISLAND YEARS: remastered with bonus tracks, full colour booklet and all.

Report this review (#258943)
Posted Saturday, January 2, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Hard to say what kicked John Cale out of the lethargic state that got him to record Paris 1919, but Fear is a compelling work of art-rock where Cale has found his edge back. Though the songs are pretty basic, the smart arrangements and the urge and bite of the performance makes them magical.

Assisted by a gang of Roxy Music veterans, Cale makes a decisive choice for innovative and bleak music, quite a relief after the mellow pop of Paris 1919. The intensity of the vocals, the jagged rhythm and disturbing bass guitar at the end of Fear make it a mandatory listen, especially so in order to place some of the origins of punk. Cale moves rock into new and dangerous playgrounds here, where nothing will be as innocent and naive as it used to be.

As much as I despised the ballads on Paris 1919, Buffalo Ballet is simply wonderful. It suggests so much pain underneath the smooth surface. Barracuda continues with a sort of folksy experiment, great tune. Emily breaks the momentum a bit, but Ship Of Fools is a next highlight, it's a slightly sentimental evergreen with great minimalist keyboard arrangements.

The best part on the album is Gun, a pulsating 8 minutes of avant-rock that brings back the best of Velvet Underground's debut. Even though this album comes after the peak of the kraut scene, it's easy to see where they got their chops from: a steady entrancing beat, harsh sound effects, dissonance and touches of artsy violin. The next two songs are rather average. The Man Who Couldn't is a typical Cale song with his well known rhythmical staccato playing on the piano. It all ends with the disturbing Momamma Scuba that seems to continue the musical journey of Gun.

While it isn't strong enough for 4 stars, it's a landmark that has many highlights. Sure one of his most relevant and inspired albums.

Report this review (#265683)
Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars John Cale's "Fear" is a fun and accessible chunk of art rock, with just enough twists and turns to keep it from seeming mainstream. Cale is best known as a founding member of the Velvet Underground and cause of that band's more avant-garde leanings. Before that he spent time with Lamonte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music and he even made an album with famed minimalist Terry Riley. Needless to say, his art music credentials are impressive indeed.

However, when it comes to writing pop songs, he is largely a mixed bag. On his solo debut, "Vintage Violence," he tended towards droning and melancholy ballads (a byproduct of his Welsh heritage, I suspect) and while some of these were enthralling, many were dull and lifeless. Well, he has certainly not escaped from this weakness on "Fear," but at least he has picked up the pace a little, and recruited some fine talent to help.

Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera lend their skills to the album, and their presence (particularly Eno's) is certainly felt. For example, the end of the opening cut "Fear is a Man's Best Friend" is a caterwauling free for all that sounds very much influenced by Eno's "Here Come The Warm Jets." It's an ending that transforms an otherwise radio friendly song into a bona fide piece of art rock, and it's one of the album's highlights. Cale is mainly known for his electric viola playing, but here he shows that he is no slouch on the bass guitar either.

Other standout tracks include "Gun." which is a slow, hard-rocking story song that never lets up, and the poppy-yet-eccentric "Barracuda," which never fails to bring a smile to my lips. Behind its simple two chord riff lies some truly weird mosquito-like keyboard playing. As expected there are some mournful ballads, and while "Buffalo Ballet" is pretty good, the others fall a bit flat, lacking the melodies or the lyrics necessary to pull off such somber fair. The album's low point is the dated sounding "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy." Besides the fact that Cale insists on pronouncing "orgy" with a hard "g," the backing vocals are horrendous.

Overall, this is a good album, but not one I can unreservedly recommend. All I can say is that if you are a fan of Cale or Eno or Manzanera, it will certainly be worth your time.

Report this review (#273811)
Posted Tuesday, March 23, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars On Fear, Cale manages to create a deft mix of singer/songwriter, piano man-type midtempo rockers and ballads and a darker, more hard-edged and weirder chaotic energy that mucks about underneath the well-groomed surface, hoping to find a way out. Unfortunately, it's kept on too tight a leash for the most part, only occasionally making the full jump out into the open, leaving it mostly just teasingly rippling the surface.

Uncluttered, basic, earnest (if at times a bit sentimentally honeyed) and often bass-propelled underlying arrangements engages in flirtations with diversions into tingly, screechy, confrontational atonality, skewed guitar fun and mischievous keyboard patterns and effects. Given enough time, a few of the songs willingly start to disintegrate and blur the picture, wheezing and wailing their way towards chaos.

With all his artsy smartness, Cale still has a tendency to embrace a sweetly nostalgic melancholia with orchestrated and choir-enriched woolliness, but the dreamy or more down-to-earth soft touches retain a refreshing clarity and never really take over on Fear. Instead, raw energy and commanding directness clear the air in pleasing and regular intervals. That makes the cushioned and simple richness of tingly, dreamy, grandiloquent pop feel less saturated.

While obviously a proficient song-smith and writer of catchy, driving and engaging melodies using the simplest of means and the minimum of trappings, the music sadly and quickly wears itself a bit thin in a drudging no-man's-land of pseudo-edgy anonymity. That's not to say it's really bad in any way, but the feelings of familiarity, comfort and absent-mindedness that creep into the listening experience for me is a clear sign of the material lacking staying power and the ability to arouse some proper long time interest. Fear feels a bit stuck in the mud: never hook-laden, catchy or melodious enough to drag you in that way and never experimental and challenging enough to reward more adventurous listeners.

But it remains a decent enough chunk of slightly gnarled, efficient and diverse art rock. In the impossible-to-hate-impossible-to-love category.

3 stars.


Report this review (#1139897)
Posted Friday, February 28, 2014 | Review Permalink

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