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.)


Anonymous said...

Would like to see your thoughts on some of Cale's other "covers". For Example, some of Leonard Cohen's tracks Cale did with Suzane Vega or Nico's Frozen Warnings from the Nico Icom documentary (This song should have been included on Fragments of a Rainy Season). "She never took no for an answer" is another song that deserves mention.

Inverarity said...

I will be covering as many covers as I can obtain. I'd sure like to hear "Willow Weep for Me" and "God Only Knows," I'll tell you.