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Balancing Act

  John Cale: HoboSapiens

 

EMI, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

    John Cale: 5 Tracks [EP]

 

EMI, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: November 24, 2003

By Laurence Station

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 departed 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 manner.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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