Also see: Essential Songs
Two are inarguable:
Paris 1919 is the man's best album. It fuses his violent and beauty-seeking sides into a musically inventive, lyrically surprising, and wholly captivating album. It's probably best not to think too hard about the historical allusions, as they seem as impressionistic as the rest of the lyrics. There's no overt representation of the "screaming maniac" side of Cale here, but the maniac is submerged into the lyrics, and gets to sing horrible things very sweetly.
Fragments of a Rainy Season is my favorite live album by anybody and the ideal greatest hits collection to boot. Though Cale is unaccompanied here, his piano and guitar is all the instrumentation these songs need. I've never heard such a walking-on-a-tightrope performance before - not a note or syllable or accent is out of place, but the playing and singing is so intense it feels the whole thing could go off the rail at any moment. The only negative is that it's so good, everything else in his catalog sort of pales by comparison.
You should own one of the following:
Guts takes his Island records and cuts away 70%, leaving a bloody skeleton of the essential maniacal songs. This was the only way his Island discography saw American release back in the 70s, but, though these albums were uneven, I find it loses too much.
Better to buy the Island Years compilation (recently reissued as Gold, with a crap cover photo), which includes the entirety of the Welshman's Doom Trilogy plus all the b-sides, alternate tracks, and an outtake or several - 36 tracks in all. At going rates, it's well under $0.50 US per track.
What of the rest of his catalog? If you don't want to start hunting down imports and long-out-of-print records, your best bet is one or both of these compilations (one of which is an import; the other's out of print - haha):
Close Watch: An Introduction to John Cale is a very broad overview that does a satisfying job of covering his career, the CBGB years not included. Unfortunately, it's heavy on the Island Years, includes the dud "Set Me Free" from "Walking on Locusts", and doesn't give quite enough bang for the buck. No non-album tracks here either. At least it's in print, and you should be able to find it at an affordable price.
Seducing Down the Door is an excellent comprehensive compilation, full of rarities and surprises. It was published by Rhino in 1994, meaning of course that it's out of print. It also fails to meaningfully represent the CBGB years, including only the inessential blues remake/cover "Walking the Dog." It also devotes a lot of space to Paris and the Island years, but 13 tracks out of 38 isn't too much. The coverage of his early pop-classical work is welcome. A little bit of looking should allow you to grab this for $20 or less - a great deal.
I think Sabotage/Live is essential, since nothing else covers this very unique and unglued period. Cale comes uncomfortably close to getting cheesy rather than harrowing with the screaming here, but doesn't quite go over the line. The band is often great here - this is Cale's hardest-rocking album (until Circus Live, at least), but it still shows his amazing talent for texture and arrangement. The 2000 rerelease also includes the Animal Justice EP and the wonderfully dissolute "Rosengarden Funeral of Sores," the b-side to "Mercenaries (Ready for War)." It, alas, is out of print, but only recently. Good luck. EDIT: Back in print, hallelujah!
The best and most essential of Cale's recent records, 2003's 5 Tracks EP, is hard to find. 2003's Hobosapiens took a while to grow on me, but is well-loved now - its main flaw is overlength. blackAcetate (2005) is constructed strangely, but excellent in spots and worth picking up. These two last LPs should be easy to find, but they probably shouldn't be your first Cale albums.
And if you're into noise and drone - I mean, you're REALLY INTO them:
There's the New York in the 1960s box set, full of all kinds of atavistic wonders. The purest and most essential of the three discs (which are all available separately) is Sun Blindness Music, whose title track features Cale exploring a single chord on an electric organ for 43 minutes (the length of an entire vinyl LP). Which sounds very dull, but the way that chord twinkles and pulsates is anything but. I don't listen to it often, but I feel reborn every time I do (especially in the car). The other two discs are more diverse but less fulfilling.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Also see: Essential Songs