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John Cale - Helen Of Troy CD (album) cover


John Cale

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4 stars I do not know how unhappy John Cale may have been in the mid-1970s, but this fascinating album gives the impression that his mind was unbalanced. With his previous release, SLOW DAZZLE, Cale tried to achieve commercial success and failed. On HELEN OF TROY he seems to have thrown all caution to the wind. He simply went and released an album that was sad, angry, depressing and frightening in turn. It was not the kind of thing "pop idols" do. It's the sort of music you'd expect from honest composers, such as Schubert and Schumann. At the same time, it's gloriously arranged rock'roll. When I first discovered HELEN OF TROY (on LP) I had the good fortune that one of my friends kept pointing out things like: 'Now listen to the bass!' / 'Now listen to those violins!' / 'Now listen to what the drums do here!' etc. etc. I didn't get frightened by the album's contents, I was kept too busy admiring its supreme musicality. Just look at the musicians participating: there's the first-rate rhythm session of Pat Donaldson and Timi Donald (who went on to brighten up other masterful albums, by the likes of Richard Thompson and Dave Kubinec), there's the great Chris Spedding on solo guitar, and there are cameos by Phil Collins (then at the height of his powers) and Brian Eno. Not to mention some gorgeous playing (on organ and keyboards in particular) from Cale himself, who also provided orchestral arrangements: sparse-sounding trumpets on the title track, lush strings on 'Close Watch'.

As for the songs included here: as any Cale freak will tell you, throughout the years 'Cable Hogue', 'Close Watch' and 'Leaving it up to you' went on to become much-loved concert classics (usually in stripped-down solo versions). They're all miniature masterpieces, and it's good to have them in their original versions. 'My Maria', 'Engine', 'Save Us' and 'Sudden Death' are as unsettling and intimidating as anything you'll find on BERLIN by Cale's old colleague and rival, Lou Reed - only not as melodious. 'Pablo Picasso' is an early cover version of a Jonathan Richman song which David Bowie would, much much later, try to make his own (needless to add that Cale's version has a menacing edge).

Generally speaking, HELEN OF TROY cannot be called a soothing listening experience. It would be no exaggeration to call it an even more painful version of the earlier FEAR. If you still need proof that rock is not just for empty-headed adolescents, and if you're at all interested in John Cale's career, this album must be called "an excellent addition to your rock music collection".

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Posted Sunday, December 27, 2009 | Review Permalink

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