Thursday, June 28, 2007

All My Friends

That's how it starts: we go back to your house. We put John Cale's latest recording, All My Friends, on the stereo. This one's a cover? Not of an old classic or one of his producees but of a modern recording artist? A-and LCD Soundsystem? The "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House" guy?

Huh. Weird.

Not too weird, though. The first time I heard James Murphy's original, I thought of Cale. The single arpeggiated piano chord repeated endlessly is amusingly reminiscent of the prankish Erik Satie piece "Vexations," performed over the course of nineteen hours by Cale, John Cage, and others. The lyrics describe a journey from youth to adulthood and the longing for youth again. There are aspects of them that resonate strongly with our man's themes and techniques: a certain longing ("if I could see all my friends tonight..."), indirectness ("it's the memory of our betters that is keeping us on our feet."), and brusqueness ("you drop the first ten years just as fast as you can and the next ten people who are trying to be polite"). And, of course, "friend" is one of the key concepts in Cale's work.

However, one of the sloppiest and least Cale-like lyrics is the one that intrigues me most, given the circumstances of the cover:

And with a face like a dad and a laughable stand
You can sleep on the plane or review what you said
When you're drunk and the kids look impossibly tan
You think over and over, "Hey, I'm finally dead!"
Oh if the trip and the plan come apart in your head
You can turn it on yourself, you ridiculous clown

This doesn't seem like a song written by a young man, even a young man beginning to feel old. Even a sixty-five-year-old as healthy and vigorous as Cale seems to be in recent years might feel like a displaced person amongst crowds of the young, and that feeling of unreal nostalgia and dislocation is strong in both the original and the cover. It's a neat trick.

The repeated piano phrase is replaced with guitar (panned hard to the left) and viola. The bassline, played by James Murphy himself, and the agitated and tense drums form the rest of the backbone. The occasional appearance of additional guitar and other noises make for a development as satisfying as the original, if a little less disciplined and cohesive. It's a great alternate take on the song instrumentally, even if in pacing and construction it's extremely similar to the original.

It's the vocal that really stands out here, though. Cale's voice is very strong and he obviously relishes some of the rich language used. He adds dramatic flourishes to lines which Murphy delivered with a flat affect. He adds a certain intangible quality that Murphy's vocal lacks - possibly more experience with losing friends. And that's what the track comes down to, in every version: "Where are your friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight..."

It may not be "Thoughtless Kind," but it's one of my favorite songs this year. I don't know which version I like better, but I'm glad to have them both.

Listen to it on DFA Records's MySpace page. Here's a great Pitchfork piece on the subject, a little more elegant than mine. (Thanks to Bows + Arrows for the heads-up.)


Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Banquo: It will be rain tonight.
1st Murderer: Let it come down.

These words, stark in their black ink against a white background, were printed on the cover of a record called - ominously, in this context - Fragments of a Rainy Season. The cover was very plain - no decoration, just text - and I almost thought it was a bootleg. I was forced to buy it: the Macbeth quotation, pithy and unnerving, was a sign of a malevolent intelligence worth pursuing.

It was my first album-length confrontation with Mr. Cale. I rushed back to the music store the same evening to pick up the other Cale album I'd looked at, a record called Paris 1919. Partly it was because I needed more of this stuff, partly it was because I'd seen a track called "Macbeth" on it. Once Fragments was over, I put Paris 1919 on, and - impatient for more background on the importance of this epigraph - skipped to Macbeth.

I wasn't really expecting killer slide guitar (by Lowell George, as it happens) over an uptempo drum barrage! Nor had I expected the vocal to be so... poppy and upbeat (despite the screamy quality of it). But he was saying something, and it wasn't very nice. The words were rueful, celebratory, ruthless, sly ("Banquo's been and gone / He's seen it all before"). The chorus was longer than the verses. And the crux of it was unknowability: "Somebody knows for sure / It's gotta be me or it's gotta be you."

It was enigmatic and irresistable. I had to investigate this guy further. Who knows what other skeletons were in his closets?


Sunday, June 24, 2007

I Shot Andy Warhol Suite

You've got two chunks of music, pal, and you call it a suite? Not having seen I Shot Andy Warhol, I don't know how much material Cale composed, but this is great stuff, and I'd hate to think that a lot more was left on the soundtrack assembly room floor.

What it sounds like is "New York Underground" from 1998's Nico/Dance Music, if it had been written by Phillip Glass. There are two related string ensemble pieces, each one sounding to me like a passacaglia (development of a theme, usually in a minor key, over a ground bass part). There's little in the way of obvious melody; it's all about harmony and counterpoint.

In the first of the pieces, the upper strings sound very much like human voices (characteristic of Glass's work). The violin and viola dominate, starting with a gentle rocking theme. They move away from one another and the harmonies become more strained. Before dissonance actually creeps in, though, they move back into a close, comfortable harmony and the piece ends. My only complaint is that the bass's connection to the rest of the instruments seems tenuous.

The second piece is rhythmic, violent, grim. The theme sounds to be the same, but the viola and cello dominate, with the violin adding only a little light here and there. There's none of the lyricism that the first piece can't resist including, only determination and inevitability. Automation. No flourish or resolution at the end - we're left hanging.

The piece isn't particularly original or noteworthy, I think, and I don't know what it has to do with Andy Warhol or Valerie Solanas. Nevertheless: it's excellent, satisfying listening. It's one of my favorite soundtrack pieces so far, and the first half might be the most frankly beautiful music Cale has written.


Friday, June 22, 2007


I love the drums on Magritte. They feel jerky, like clattering boxcar wheels. (I'm sure there's a technical term for this, since it's a technique I've heard in many places). And sometimes they switch places with a really synthetic drum machine. This track collects all of Cale's performing instruments into one place: the lead instrument is viola, with bass adding violence and piano connecting the verses with the middle eight. There's more, of course - on HoboSapiens Cale tends to layer on instrument after instrument, sound after sound, until the song almost suffocates. It makes the songs in question hard to really appreciate on first (or fifth) listen, but as a result they tend to be growers. After my fifteenth listen I loved the album. I don't know how many people made it that far, though.

L'histoire centrale - the searching of the river continuedViolence, yes. It's a violent song, and I'm not sure why it should be. It's a covert violence, sort of reminiscent of the incredible violence that sits in plain view in much of Magritte's work. He's a gimmick painter in the popular perception, with his floating faceless bowler-hatted men and his endless blue skies. His work almost seems too easy to enjoy, to me - it doesn't take any work to look at his paintings and feel fear and recognition and some semblance of understanding. Everything seems there on the surface - maybe everything is the surface. (It certainly is for his imitators.) But his work is irresistable - I can't not look.

Which is sort of how I feel about this song. The sonic picture is evocative, but feels a little shallow, somehow. The lyric mentions some of the icons of Magritte's oeuvre, umbrellas and bowler hats inside a canvas of blue, saturated with beauty. It seems like a fairly literal and not very meaty evocation. But like Magritte's work, it's laced with half-hidden questions of memory ("how often we forgot Magritte"), perception ("pinned to the edges of vision"), and violence ("someone's coming that hates us"). These questions make me wonder if I don't give the song and the painter enough credit for depth. Maybe someday it will all click.

The live version on Circus Live hews very closely to the recorded version. It's a pleasant listen, but I don't think it offers anything new. I don't skip it, but I don't really skip to it, either.

P.S. I love the suggestion I've read somewhere that it's a depiction of an art theft - I don't know that I agree, but it's given me some enjoyable thoughts. I think it's appropriate, anyway.

Here's a cool little fan video that juxtaposes the painter with the song.


Thursday, June 21, 2007


I don't want to offend anyone here, but blackAcetate almost strikes me as Vintage Violence, part the second. That is, while a pleasant listen, it's strangely insubstantial for a Cale album. I won't necessarily turn it off, but I listened to it only a few days ago and simply don't recall most of it. Also, while Violence has about five songs I really enjoy, Acetate boasts only one: "Wasteland."

It starts off all ghostly and shimmering, with a single curlicue of piano, and lulls the listener into expecting something by say, Enigma. Or maybe Delerium. Something that belongs on that compilation featuring "Tubular Bells" and the "X-files" theme that I used to see hawked on television adverts. Then the rhythm track kicks in, and Cale's inimitable vocals let the listener know that Sarah MacLachlan is not going to be popping up on this one.

Cale takes the listener on a trip through a hot and cold wasteland, a place of volcanoes, dry riverbeds, missing dinosaurs, and the ghost of yesteryear. That's all there is to it, really. The chorus is as straightforward as Cale ever gets: "You comfort me/comfort me/hold me in the dark." The level of vocal intensity is static, and so is the backing track-- there is not much development here; it's a snapshot rather than a story. But the wavering curtains of synth and the evocative piano add a layer of atmosphere, and there are nice strings on the instrumental break and some interesting guitar at the end. There are woo-woo girls, yes, or rather "na na na" girls, but Cale uses such additives with more consistent success than any artist of his generation, and they don't ruin anything here. Cale's voice shows its age and wear; he's a little hoarse, and if he doesn't engage in the old histrionics, it's likely because he can't.

And that's it. So what makes "Wasteland" any good? I don't believe that all Cale is good Cale, after all. Well, I enjoy it because it is atypical Cale. Instead of something so deeply weird and idiosyncratic that it's hard to imagine anyone but Cale even doing the song, this could easily be used on a film soundtrack. This is where I again perceive a parallel to Vintage Violence: we're being treated to Cale the performer rather than Cale the performance artist. This isn't "Guts," or anything of the sort. It's impressionistic, but in a universal way; instead of genuine volcanoes out the window, it's clear Cale is living in an emotional wasteland, and enough of us have been there (or think we have) that there is a way in to the song. And the path in doesn't require a reference book.

And, this being a Cale song, I'm not convinced there is anyone actually there to hold the narrator in the dark. I think he's alone with the dead dinosaurs, and I like it that way.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Faces and Names

It's hard to know what to do with Songs for Drella, an album where Lou Reed sings most of the tracks. Especially since John Cale writes in his liner notes, "I must therefore say that although I think [Reed] did most of the work, he has allowed me to keep a position of dignity in the process." Cale disavowed this to a certain extent in What's Welsh for Zen ("I did at least as much as Lou, if not more"), but given that several songs are written in Reed's own voice and none are in Cale's, I'm not sure I believe it. Oh, the perils of doing an Andy Warhol bio-album. For now, anyway, I'm going to do the songs that Cale sings or influences unmistakably.

Him and his collaborators - pff.

Anyway, Faces and Names - considered "Cale enough" for inclusion in Seducing Down the Door, for some reason - sounds more like a typical Lou Reed litany to me. The trademark sign is hovering there in the background, a superscript to the whole song. There's the infinite repetition of the title phrase, the focus on identity, the clipped syntax - it all adds up to Lou. It's an interesting lyric, since it is purely from Warhol's perspective. I suppose it taught me something about Andy Warhol, at any rate.

The music sounds like something Cale might come up with - there are even slight similarities with "In the Backroom" from Wrong Way Up. It's your typical 80s/90s Cale electric piano vamping, though Lou Reed's electric guitar accompaniment is very tasty and saves the track from being too somnolent. Cale's vocal is pleasant, but very restrained and undifferentiated - it seems emotionally flat. (Which seems to be the point, mind you.) The effect is hypnotic and depressing.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Rosegarden Funeral of Sores

Vocal Distortion Intended

is printed on the label of the b-side of the Mercenaries (Ready for War) single. This b-side contains one of the most bizarre things Cale ever recorded, the ineffable Rosegarden Funeral of Sores. I'll try to eff it - that's my job - but ultimately you'll just have to listen. Here's a high-quality audio file (up for a limited time).

A perverted blues bass figure as mechanical as the drum machine track it accompanies drives this song forward. It's the first released song Cale used a drum machine on, and the drum machine proves essential to the artificial chill that pervades this track. It's a terrible feeling that these instruments produce, a feeling of being moved against one's will, a feeling of automation (this is compounded by the jerky stop-and-go construction of the song - like being on an assembly line). But it's the Wurlitzer organ that encrusts the rhythm track, crystallizing on it like minerals on glass, that really pushes it into horror. For all the fever-dream songwriting around, this is the first song I've heard that sounds and feels like a fever dream.

This feeling extends to the vocals and to the lyrics, the smashed and splintered lyrics that ooze out from that intentionally distorted vocal, metallic and mechanical like the other instruments. There's an explicit dichotomy between Madonna and whore, but I'm not at all convinced that they're discrete actors. The lyrics loop back on themselves, repeat, stop midway and restart. Some men are chosen from the rest. But their choices don't seem to matter.

P.S. That the, uh, less subtle Bauhaus cover is better-known than the original is a damn shame.
P.P.S. The live mash-up with Femme Fatale on Circus Live is an interesting experiment, but it doesn't really get off the ground.
Also: I like the 'n' that they randomly added to the title for the Sabotage/Live reissue - "Rosengarden Funeral of Sores" has a better ring to it.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ghost Story

John Cale got into music very young, legendarily composing a piano piece in grammar school that was taped and broadcast by BBC Wales. By the time he was finished with University (or vice versa), he had caught the performance art bug with such works as "Plant Piece", more popularly known as "Scream At a Potted Plant Until It Dies." Then there's nearly scaring Serge Koussevitsky's widow to death with his composition for axe and piano at Tanglewood in 1963.

Cale never really lost the itch for performance art - he hasn't gotten rid of the hockey mask just yet*. The intensity of it has varied over the years, but the minima so far have been 1970's underrated and underselling Vintage Violence and 1996's adult-contemporary papfest Walking on Locusts. On these albums, songcraft takes precedence over inspiration, personality, and anti-listener ordnance.

To my ear, there isn't much personality on display on Vintage Violence. Wonderful lyrical phrases, invitingly ambiguous music, wide-ranging topics... but no motivating theme or set of feelings. It also sounds more homogenous than nearly any of Cale's other albums. And then there are the problems of Cleo and Adelaide. It's a good album, don't get me wrong, but it's a calculated attempt at a "pop album." His heart wasn't really in it. It might be that the three-day writing and recording time hurt it a bit, the magic of improvisation be damned.

One song, however, particularly transcended its album of birth to become a staple of the live repertoire. Ghost Story is the earliest Cale song that uses the voice familiar as his (both as a singer and as a lyricist). It, like many of the songs on Vintage Violence, is an exploration of language more than any sort of story. I keep harping on Cale's use of "phonetically rich" language, but it's a crucial part of my appreciation of his work. His assemblies of phones are invariably imaginative and resistant to cliche.

"Evocative" is often a euphemism for "objectively meaningless," but some of the images presented here are almost worth short stories of their own: "Stood up, wished us good luck / he changed his attitude twice / the clock in the corner shivered in fear / tired and hungry for days." (Originally it was a box that shivered, but the change in live performance since the late 70s is entirely for the better.) Not to mention clever - "twice" sets your ear up to expect a rhyme, which you don't get until the end of the next verse. It could be that the Welsh background set him up as a great assembler of English sounds, as Russian set up Nabokov. (Not that the two are in the same league, but same idea.)

There are all sorts of great turns of phrase buried in here, "wasting away on advice" being particularly juicy. The final lyric is audacious, if perhaps a little undeserved: "It'll haunt you for the rest of your life." A fitting epigraph for a violent and memorable musical career, though.

Musically, it stands out on the album, with swooping electric organs taking the lead over an agitated and restless bassline and subtle rhythm electric guitar switching between clipped chords and delicate arpeggios. Now that I think of it, it sounds a bit like early post-Syd Pink Floyd, off the soundtrack to More or something. The drums come in and drop out in an alarming and uncomfortable way. It devolves after a restrained scream (the first on record!) to a heavily-drummed jam that suddenly (assuming I don't have a misprinted CD) cuts off mid-measure, tonally unresolved. Yum.

Here's a video of a live performance at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004:

Click here for flash-player audio, or here for a low-bitrate MP3.

* As you'd see on Ghost Story from the Circus Live DVD!


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jumbo In Tha Modernworld

Who'd have thought that John Cale, of all people, would fall prey to the politico-anthropomorpho-metaphoric song bug, hanging 'round with Paul and Rog and who knows who. Jumbo In The Modernworld is a very curious song to do it, with, though, as whatever metaphors are there are incredibly opaque. Jumbo is presumably an elephant, having lunch with a lion, to talk about an alliance with/against a giraffe. Meanwhile, a hippo may have stolen all the water due to the incompetence of a buffalo security guard. And we should blame it all on the monkey. Who knows, maybe it's about Ahmed Chalabi and his tailor.

I mostly disregard the lyrics, as pleasant as they feel in the mouth. It's mostly a vocal showcase. You hear our sexagenarian friend shout, keen, sing with falsetto, rant, chant, chatter in the studio, and do a very realistic recreation of a lion growl. It's his strongest, most impressive vocal in a long time - I just hope he didn't hurt himself!

The track is pretty amazing, as well. It starts out with a drone and an electronic kettle-drum sounding-thing. Piano and choppy guitar come in as lead instruments and a metal xylophone-type instrument in the background. A new guitar lead comes in on the chorus, to the right, along with a group of "ooh-wah" chain-gang grunters on the chorus. The two guitar leads do a call and response bit on the second chorus, to good effect.

Then everything drops out, leaving just unbearable tension: quiet viola(?) drone, the xylophone, some hand-tapping percussion, electronic vocal humming, and a group of tribal chanters that all sound like Cale, saying something that sounds like "Jumboweh." This state of affairs can't last, and Cale comes back with the chorus for some real screaming.

This feels like an in-joke that turned into studio screwing-around that turned into a song. Which isn't an insult - if he's to be believed, Cale mostly composes in the studio. Despite this track's relatively lightweight nature, it's still a joy to hear him rock out, especially (there is no good way to say this) if you crave the sound of screaming. It may not be deep, but it's got something. At the very least, it rises above the genre.

The video bears no relationship to the lyrics that I can tell. It's not too original a conceit - it almost seems Seussian - but it works well enough with the music and has some really striking visual touches. It's on the Circus Live DVD, but the song itself is only available electronically and as a radio promo single.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Jack the Ripper

If you're frightened by the strength of genteel words, how about a plain ol' unpretentious pop song? "Jack the Ripper (in the Moulin Rouge)" may not sound like one, but it's got an up-tempo shuffle thing going, a pleasant vocal, and a hell of a chorus hook. I don't think anything I can say will prepare you for the weedle-wee synth that pops up here and there. Just listen to the interplay between the crunchy, bouncy guitar and the electronic piano. Enjoy it.

Click here for a full-quality flash player , or here for a low-bitrate MP3.

OK, so the lyrics are about murder, paranoia, sexual uncomfortability to the point of violence (Don't touch me, I'm a real live wire!), and the shattering of the illusion of civilization ("Are we dreaming? No we're not, I know because I'm here."). The title character (well, just like Jack the Ripper, not the man himself) is presented with a great deal of sympathy. The failure to specify what was done is effective - a decent horror film doesn't show the villain.

Nevertheless! It's still a great pop song. I'd love to hear it on the radio, even if just once. God, those ersatz-Beatles backing vocals.

(N.B. Besides Seducing Down the Door, this song appeared on the IRS compilation These People Are Nuts! They meant it.)


Sunday, June 10, 2007


The "Most Generic Song Title" award for the John Cale catalog goes to Things, the third track on 2003's HoboSapiens. It also ran a strong second in the "Most Improbable Reference To Another Songwriter" category, taking the very distinctive title phrase from Warren Zevon's "Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead." ("(I Keep a) Close Watch" narrowly beat it out, despite this judge's objections.)

Cale claims ignorance that the phrase was Zevon's, says he got it from the film that ripped off Zevon's title. Sure, John. All I know's that Zevon's ode to hotels that never change the sheets was played over the end credits of the film after some repentance and bribery from the guilty filmmaker. But if Cale didn't watch the movie all the way through, I've never seen it at all, so I can't speak much to connections between the film and the song. If there are any, please let me know.

This is a very hard song to judge. It's a song about sex, and Cale's are never subtle. They are always weird, though, and this one doesn't disappoint. The initial lyrical gambit, which may or not be a typo, sets a really bizarre scene: "Elsewhere in the Temple, the llamas are gearing up / to assault Tiger Mountain when the sun comes up." Other than the Brian Eno/Maoist theatre reference, it conjures up an army of meditating warrior ungulates. Maybe he meant lama, maybe not.

It's a heavily-referential song full of great one-liners (appropriate for a Zevon jumping-off point), but the lyrics don't really hang together - he jumps from Tibet to Dixieland ("talked about the difference between North and South / keep your gun in your pocket and your tongue in your mouth") to Charles Schulz ("I saw the way you looked at her Charlie Brown... good grief.") to Crete without any apparent connection. Except doing the things you do in Denver when you're dead.

And yet as much as the dirty-old-man feeling and the lyric disconnects make me want to dislike it, it charms with its breezy and vigorous melody and instrumentation. The rhythm track isn't that special, but it gets to me. The xylophone accents are delightful. There's an electronic squiggle here, a heavily effected guitar there, even some backwards guitar, if my ears don't deceive me.

His effective use of woo-woo girls continues here on the chorus - very few artists use them so often without becoming insufferable. The lead vocal vocal really makes the song, though - he may be singing phonetically rich nonsense, but he's singing it with gusto. I hate to say it, but I think he sounds... cute. (!) It could be that this is one of those great performances of mediocre songs.

So: Things is definitely a guilty pleasure. There's really not much to it, but it's a song I find myself singing too often for comfort. Guess I'll go toss back a shot of rye.


Friday, June 8, 2007

Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed

It's easy in these days of ubiquitous recorded music to confuse recordings with compositions, a particular version of a song with the song itself. OK, not that easy, but hear me out. A recorded version of a song may not grab you, even after repeated listenings, while a live version or a rerecording may enthrall you. (The opposite also happens: great performances of mediocre songs are easy to come by.) We could get into the notion (illusion?) of performer authenticity and all that, too, but that's old hat.

Well, The Falklands Suite runs into that problem. It's an orchestral and choral setting of four Dylan Thomas poems that is the main content of Words for the Dying, Cale's ne plus ultra of weird tracklists. However, unlike most unsatisfying recordings, three of the four songs got a do-over on Fragments of a Rainy Season, and we're all the luckier for it. On record, the suite is one beast; live on solo piano, quite another.

The difference is pronounced on Cale's setting of "Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed." The Russian television orchestra is clearly more engaged than it often is, and the boys' choir isn't too sloppy in the beginning. Cale's vocal is decent, if a wee bit overwrought. And yet, the elements stubbornly refuse to emulsify, remaining a lumpy mixture.

Individual elements are worthy of praise. The strings feel organistic in the "middle 8", as if they're driven by bellows, matching the tone of the (synthesized?) harmonium - hi Nico - they're playing with in an interesting way. The winds and brass do amazing work at creating a feeling of adriftness. The use of the boys' vocals even seems warranted at first.

The welcome of the vocals wears out quickly, however. It seems that Cale tried to assign vocals to himself or the boys based on the perspective he felt the poem was using. In practice, it feels totally random and very irritating. As elsewhere, when Cale sings together with the boys the result is horrifying - somebody isn't in key, or maybe the voices just don't work with his. Where they trade poem fragments, it feels lumpy as well. The choir probably should have been used for only the first line ("Lie still, sleep becalmed, sufferer with the wound | In the throat, burning and turning.") and the last ("through the drowned"), with Cale doing the rest. Cale's added coda, "We will obey the drowned, the drowned of Falkland," wasn't really necessary to get the drift, either.

Live, though, Cale's amazingly expressive vocal communicates his reading of the poem irresistibly. The free tempos provide an expansive feel, the changing piano inflections representing a powerless drift over the open ocean almost as well as the full orchestral treatment. Maybe it's so focused that it makes the original recording sound worse than it deserves to.

In any case, he had a great text to work with. I'm not a huge fan of Thomas (another contribution of Wales to the arts), but do enjoy his work. I can't say whether I like this poem so much because of the quality of its arrangement or enjoy the arrangement so much because of the quality of the poem. Although it uses more advanced poetic techniques than Cale usually does, Thomas's tendency for phonetically rich language fits well with Cale's. It's easy to imagine Cale writing lyrics like: "Under the mile-off moon we trembled listening to the sea."

[P.S. If I recall correctly, the poem was written for Thomas's father, dying of throat cancer. I don't really want to speculate about Welsh fathers in general, but it's an interesting subject worth considering, especially given that "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" follows this track in both the full and the redacted suite. There's also the title of the album to account for.]


Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ocean Life

What do you do with a track that has some great bits and some crap bits? What do you do with an album of it? What do you do with several? These are the questions I have meditated upon this week, while listening, repeatedly, to Cale's almost-decade of work from 1989 to 1996. Primarily Words for the Dying (1989, errr), Last Day on Earth (1994, mostly good), and Walking on Locusts (1996, aarrgh). The things I do.

Ocean Life is one of Cale's trademark spoken-word pieces, the centerpiece of Last Day on Earth , the bizarre "blueprint for theatre" collaboration of Bob Neuwirth. The catch is that the vocal is provided by a Jenni Muldaur, who I see is the daughter of folk singer Maria Muldaur. She brings a weary and wry, yet suspiciously hippie-inflected, voice to some surreal thoughts about the ocean. I thought I hated her voice when I first heard the track, but there's something almost hypnotizing about it.

She is also given credit for "additional lyric." I don't have any idea which lyric that is. The lyrics here suffer from an attraction to cheap paradox and wordplay ("I don't have the patience, but what does it cost on the open market? And who can afford that?", "the dull, sacrilegious commandment of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a truth") that seems unique to this album. Maybe I can blame Bob Neuwirth. Anyway, it's not without its lyrical high points: I appreciate any song (..."or spoken word piece") that refers to peeling retinas, and it ties in conceptually with Barracuda ("I want to be buried at the bottom of the ocean ... kissed by the fishes, sushi for Shabu").

Despite the downmarket synthesizers (or is it infinite guitar?) also unfortunately characteristic of the album, the music manages to be soundtrack kitsch worth listening to. The orchestral drums, throbbing bassline, and synthesizer planes you've heard before, but the banjo and whistled melody (the chorus, as it were) make for a surprising and entertaining listen. It's pleasant, not particularly substantial music.