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.

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