Rated | Alphabetical
| Highest Rated 2006
||John Cale: HoboSapiens
||John Cale: 5 Tracks [EP]
Posted: November 24,
John Cale is perhaps the only musician on the planet who can claim to
have worked with both experimental composer John Cage and pop-rock
aesthete Lou Reed. These two musical influences have driven and stymied
the mercurial Welshman's solo work since the 1960s. Cale the avant-garde
risk-taker has often wrestled and waged outright war with Cale, conjurer
of the perfect three-minute rock song. The appealing pop sheen of 1970's
Vintage Violence clashes with an inscrutable lyricism that bars the
listener from making a more intimate connection with the material.
Likewise, he reacted to 1973's enjoyable Paris 1919 -- his most
lyrically forthcoming work to date -- with a double shot of unsettling,
deliberately difficult works, Fear and Slow Dazzle. 1982's
Music for a New Society recaptured some of the direct intimacy of
Paris, but was considerably more downcast in outlook; 1996's
Walking on Locusts sported friendly, warm production but lacked the
musical edge and biting wordplay that added weight to Cale's earlier work.
And so on.
Perhaps the notion of totally reconciling Cale's experimental and pop
leanings will never be resolved. But 5 Tracks and HoboSapiens,
his most recent releases, hint at what's possible when Cale manages to
strike a tenuous balance between the twin poles of his musical identity.
Both successfully marry interesting, electronically treated production
with attractive, studio-polished craftsmanship; alternating between
downbeat and exhilarating moments; and rely on lyrics that retain Cale's
keen intellectual edge without being overly obfuscatory.
Both discs work because Cale seems to have accepted that he'll never
wholly merge his bipolar impulses to challenge and entertain. The most
striking example of this acceptance comes on HoboSapiens, in which
he takes the same material and catapults it into two diametrically opposed
directions. "Things" is a wonderfully upbeat tribute to the recently
Warren Zevon, name checking Zevon's "Things to Do in Denver When
You're Dead" and breezily clipping along for three-and-half minutes.
Later, we get "Things X," a whirling, speed-shifting take on the same
material that transforms it from personal nod to avant-electronic tone
poem. That both tracks work, and do so under the umbrella of one album, is
a testament to Cale's willingness to embrace all aspects of his
temperamental musical personality -- his all-inclusive approach to
songcraft is also his greatest strength. While such scattershot
genre-hopping denies him a large fan base tied to a particular brand of
music, it also prevents him from being pigeonholed. Not a bad tradeoff.
Aside from the electronic brush strokes underlying the core production
and carefully placed sound bites, the two discs share similar lyrical
themes, as well. 5 Tracks' "Verses" tries to make sense of a world
seemingly gone mad since 9-11 by challenging the entire "Do unto others"
philosophy, while "Waiting For Blonde" finds Cale celebrating his fellow
citizens' toughness in light of recent tragic events ("You are New Yorkers
/ You are the very best"). HoboSapiens' "Zen," meanwhile, takes
veiled but no less cutting umbrage with the jingoistic foreign policy
dominating American politics as the War on Terror rages ("Staggered by
deception / Charmed into submission").
It's not all doom and gloom however, as HoboSapiens revels in
the simple pleasure of driving ("Reading My Mind"), and Cale has a bit of
in-studio fun with longtime collaborator Brian Eno's two daughters, who
can't stop giggling throughout the light, bouncy instrumental "Bicycle."
5 Tracks' "Chums Of Dumpty," shows off effectively messy guitar
work and a soaring, albeit bland, pop chorus -- it's simultaneously the
disc's airiest and weakest moment.
HoboSapiens is clearly the more complete of the two works, and
not just by virtue of its length: There's an unwavering confidence and
muscular focus behind the music that holds from start to finish. But it's
also not without its misfires. "Magritte" utilizes spare beats and
portentous strings to bolster Cale's elastic falsetto, which comes across
as a too self-serious mid-'80s Britpop castoff. And the hidden track "Set
Me Free" (located before the first track, providing you rewind for
four-and-a-half minutes on your CD player, or simply download a program
that will allow you to rip it to your hard drive) is a more electronically
cluttered version of the unhidden, superior version that appeared on
Walking on Locusts. But HoboSapiens stands as one of Cale's
finest moments, thanks primarily to producer Nick Franglen's excellent job
of tying together the disparate threads of Cale's sonic sketches: The
paranoid "I'm slipping away from planet Earth" synth washes powering
"Caravan" and the comparatively stripped down, acoustic strum
and manic, disquieting percussion supporting
"Letter From Abroad" come together in a cohesive and coherently insightful
Neither collection will make Cale a familiar presence on the
contemporary radio dial (and he'd probably be alarmed and dismayed if
either did), but both should expand his core base. And while Cale will
never choose Cage over Reed in his quest for sonic perfection, these two
releases prove he can have it both ways without compromising either
inclination. John Cale, 61 years young, sounds as loose and content,
passionate and focused, as he has at any point in his remarkable and
remarkably prolific career.
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