Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sold Motel

Into the West. The most recent of Cale's trail songs and gunfighter ballads, Sold Motel is also the most contemporary and the most surreal. It describes a land of motels, Tommy Hilfiger couture, "beach-blanket bourgeois sunning themselves." But the chorus clues us in:

"Send out the messenger, pick up the word
Wild Tchoupitoulas, have you heard?
Send out the messenger, pick up the word
General Custer, have you heard?"

Clues us into what, precisely, I'm not sure, but whether he's talking about Indians or the Neville Brothers in the chorus, the song feels of a piece with earlier Cale Westerns. It's a calculatedly Badass lyric, in the tradition of "Guts" and "Fear" and "Gun": "Down that way they see death everyday, in one form or another / They're no different from there to here, they've just learned how to handle the fear." It doesn't have the emotional heft of those songs, but it's a good lyric full of great sounds.

The song starts out with a rather stereotypical-sounding choppy garage-rock riff. ("Stereotypical garage rock" being one of the dominant sounds, but not the only one, of 2005's blackAcetate - one of the reason the album sounds so uneven.) But the sound gets weirder and weirder, with pitchshifted backing Cales all over the place - and then you hit the angelic choir and strings on the middle eight. Then a guitar solo that briefly turns into a trumpet solo (and back). Take that, Jack White. It's a great production job that survives the heavy sonic layering.

An all-time great song? No. The best on the album? Probably not, but a lot of fun. He performed an acoustic version at the Paradiso in Amsterdam back in 2004. Have a look.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Church of Anthrax

It's rare that a John Cale composition evokes Kraftwerk, but the title track of 1971's collaboration with Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, achieves just that.

Sounding for all the world like Ruckzuck's overly shrill little cousin, "Church of Anthrax" piles on just a few too many instruments for the static nature of its main modal progressions. It's a fun listen, but the high-pitched organ irritates and distracts from the clever and brawny exchange going between the bass and... er, prepared piano? or horns, or something. (It's a strange sound, but a good one.) The piece's component parts drift further and further from one another as the song goes on, and don't really mesh again until halfway through. That's four and a half minutes. Once they mesh, they do nothing much in particular for the next two and a half minutes. It's a pleasant nothing much, but such things only go so far. A low drone comes in at the seven minute mark and swells, adding haunting brass, while everything else fades, and the song finally falls apart. It's a satisfying ending.

What's cool is that Terry Riley's playing the organ here, so I can't blame Cale for the worst bits.

Its flaws aside, it's quite odd to hear a Krautrock piece by John Cale. The "Krauts" had been working for a while at that point, so it wasn't all that original, but it's surprising anyway. He never did come close to this style again. It's a shame: there are some good ideas here, and it appears many of them were his. I wouldn't sacrifice any of his Seventies albums for the great lost Cale prog-rock album (OK, maybe this one), but I'd be interested to hear it.


Saturday, July 28, 2007


Now this is a comeback. "Verses" kicks off the John Cale Is Back EP (er, that is, 5 Tracks). It's about one's responsibility to others, the ethic of reciprocity. I have the sense that it relates to his daughter Eden, who sings (beautiful) backing vocals on the track. Which doesn't really accord with the negative-sounding lyrics (which seem to reference a Nico voice sample from Ari Sleepy Too), but oh well. What a song says and what a song does don't always coincide.

The lyrics are imagistic, and very vivid - the last verse, "Coal smoke on the city / is from another age / The scribbling in your notebook / is soaking with rain," always gets to me, I'm not sure why. What I don't get is: what verses in the golden rule? Isn't it simply "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? This strikes me as sloppy, and irritates me a bit on every listen. If you can justify this lyrics, please do - I'd like to listen to this without the niggling at the back of this editor's mind I have.

The song is heavily pro-tooled; I don't know what's live and what's Memorex. In any case, it's compositionally strong and has a great set of melodies - like most of the EP. The percussion sounds totally synthetic, and done with a very primitive sound generator at that. The song has three different "breaks", with Eden's vocals arching over interesting basslines and synth patterns - the first graceful, the second pensive and tense, the third mysterious and foggy. Bass is definitely the primary instrument here. Synth and keening guitars form a melody-free bed for the vocals, but the focus on the vocal is so dramatic here it's reminiscent of Cale's production of Nico's The Marble Index.

Of all Cale's post-millennium work, I think this EP is the most essential. The main strike against it is that it's several years out of print. At the time of writing, there are two new copies on eBay, in a card sleeve package I haven't seen before, for less than ten U.S. dollars. Maybe there's been a silent reissue? In any case, if you can pick this up for a reasonable price, I highly recommend it.


Thursday, July 26, 2007


Having learned very little about origins or substance of the China attraction, then, let's break this "theme" thing by jetting over to Vietnam. Or Great Britain. Or something. On Riverbank, Cale's major theme seems to be the suffering of those that soldiers leave behind, but the particulars are mysterious.

In concert he claimed the song was about Liverpool, home of shipbuilding and dockyards. On the other hand, the lyrics reference Madame Nhu, the disastrously powerful fascist at the heart of the corrupt and "Catholic" South Vietnamese government. 'Course, he may have been obliquely referring to another legendary Dragon Lady, Maggie Thatcher, but gentlemen never tell. (The comparison, if it exists, is manifestly unfair.) You might think the song was inspired by the Falklands War, but that's impossible: the album Honi Soit preceded the war by a number of months.

So out with historical context! This is a song with a magnificent melancholy and a straightforward first two verses that quickly careens off into "satisfied as heretic vicars" and "foulmouthed pupils, broken heart surgery creatures crawling back inside of you," only returning to the main topic in the last verse. Lyrically, it seems to be another child of the moment, with composed lyrics sitting alongside improvised ones in a marriage made in frustration.

Instrumentally, you can't knock it. A tentative, chiaroscuro piano part starts out the song with a single cymbal being tapped fast. Other instruments encrust the sound before the vocal comes in: organ and restrained bass, then finally guitar. The guitar meanders, a bit randomly but in counterpoint to the vocal melody. It's a committed and sincere vocal from Cale. The structure is funny: though no lyrics are repeated, a chorus-type section comes in once at the end of the first verse, then twice after the second. This "chorus" music, with choppy guitar and martial drumrolls, turns into the middle-eight. Then comes a final verse, and a vocal coda based on the verse music "the stones around their necks are the stones of the riverbank." And an instrumental coda, which sounds awfully like "Hey Jude" and, despite some nice arching guitar lines, doesn't make itself worthwhile. It's a good song but not a great song, and I'm not sure why it occupies valuable space on the only in-print compilation album, Close Watch: An Introduction to John Cale.

A much finer ending was used for the solo-piano renditions of the 1983 tour. Cale sings that same vocal coda with halting piano accompaniment, then ends the song with single-note piano stabs that seem to go on forever. An audience member keeps trying to start applause and Cale keeps playing. It's extremely uncomfortable. Despite the much rougher vocal, this is the version to listen to. I've posted a high-quality MP3 from the show in Hamburg here.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Chinese Envoy

Like many a former conspiracy theorist (don't ask), I'm a sucker for songs in code. Songs dressed up in political or historical trappings particularly appeal to me; I used to spend hours puzzling over "Games Without Frontiers" and pondered over the pseudo-Biblical vibe to "The Weight" (yeah, I know, there really isn't any code there at all-- I was twelve, OK?). So, I find the estimable Mr. Cale very satisfying in this regard.

Turning up first on the bleak and bereft Music for a New Society, “Chinese Envoy” is a mysterious little vignette, one that revolves not around the titular envoy but a “princess,” the “mistress of something, she thought.” The princess can talk to the French and the Germans, but they aren’t listening, and then the envoy himself shows up, and everything is ominous in a very Cale way (things galloping out of the darkness like furniture). Eventually we leave the Chinese envoy, or rather he leaves us, “in his brokenhearted pagoda.”

Terrible lyric, that. Probably the worst in the entire song.

The “hook” is what David Byrne called “plink plink plink Chinoiserie,” but in a subtle way, and it works. Musically, it bears the signature of classic Cale, with slide guitar and strings woven together in a haunting tapestry. The music grows so dense that Cale’s voice is half-submerged by the bridge. It’s atmospheric and melancholy and really quite beautiful; everything hints at a tragedy that is never made explicit-- this is one of Cale’s sadder songs, which is saying a lot. (An excellent piano version of this, with the chinoiserie less evident, is on Fragments of a Rainy Season.)

As for the lyric, “Chinese Envoy” belongs to that peculiar Cale Storybookland visited on Vintage Violence and Paris 1919. All times and all places are one; Cardinal Richelieu and the Chinese envoy and the “princess” inhabit a world that is neither here nor there. It might be the France of Louis XIV, or the declining Europe on the eve of World War, or maybe it’s some slice of Cale’s modern life, relayed in code a la Dylan. It strikes me, listening to this one, that what Cale seems to be doing, again and again, is crafting his own invisible cities. Some common thread links the shadowed scenes in his Storybookland. With Calvino’s cities, the key to understanding it all is Venice; I don’t know the origin of Cale’s key, and can’t say whether it’s New York, or Wales, or something far more obscure.

But, as literal meaning is not the point when listening to Cale, I can only say-- great song.


Bamboo Floor

A might-have-been classic of the "apocalypse pop" genre, this Slow Dazzle outtake wasn't really properly recorded. The mix is questionable and there's a certain "demo" quality to the vocal (which is pleasant enough). Still, there is ample reason to be glad it appeared on the Island Years/Gold quasi-compilation. It's another mixture of extremely pleasant, jaunty music with dark lyrics. Not just any pop song can carry a chorus of, "Another monsoon's here and it feels like judgment day."

The first thing you'll notice about Bamboo Floor is the constant bell-like burbling organ (?). It's extremely distinctive and, oddly enough, soothing. It's key to the optimistic sound of the music, and makes this otherwise straightforward track stand out. The dominant piano part sounds very upbeat and a bit retro (unsurprisingly - musically, this is a far superior rewrite of the fey and corny "Dixieland and Dixie", a Vintage Violence-era pisstake allegedly written solely to fulfill a contract.) A very conventionally strummed acoustic guitar follows the piano chord change for chord change, and the drums and a completely unsurprising bassline complete the aural scene.

The lyrics, though, aren't conventional for the genre. They're a fractured glimpse of adventuring life, or something - robbers and drugs and houses with bamboo floors. It sounds like an extra-sordid ninteenth-century adventure novel: "Watch out for the eagle's eye or the opium on the breakfast tray, and the laughter of the dying monk from the poison of the tsetse fly." (Pedantic aside: Either it's a bit sloppy or the scene changes from continent to continent: the tsetse fly, the infamous carrier of sleeping sickness, is indigenous to Africa; in the chorus, though, we're reminded that "you can see it all in the rivers of Shanghai" - that China fixation again.) It's a nice little lyric - doomy and amusing at the same time. The roughness of the vocal lends a certain credibility to the narrator.

Have a listen and see what you think:
Full quality flash player
Low-bitrate mp3


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gideon's Bible

One of the best songs on John Cale's debut, Gideon's Bible is also representative of the general sound and approach of Vintage Violence. It sports surrealistic yet pithy lyrics over a thick, vaguely pastoral bed of piano, acoustic and electric guitar, slide guitar, viola, and wordless backing vocals. It doesn't quite achieve the dramatic gravity of Ghost Story, but it comes close. But it's the chorus melody that really stands out here: it's one of Cale's best, with a haunting and lyrical character unmatched on this album. Or through most of his career, for that matter.

The production on this number is quite interesting: to keep the barrage of instruments from turning the song syrupy, Cale puts the piano and acoustic guitar solely in the left stereo channel and the electric and slide guitars solely in the right. The backing vocals start in the left channel and the viola in the right, but gradually move to the center. The helium-girl verse backing vocals, which start out as a barely perceptible left-channel echo in the first verse, take a much more prominent role for the second verse, putting an interesting spin on Cale's vocal. He was using woo-woo girls effectively from the very beginning (if the shadow vocal isn't, in fact, his own pitch-shifted). It's not as schizophrenic a use of two channels as the Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, but it is noticeable and fairly unique.

For me, the lyrics again evoke Old China (the time and place, not the song): "Pulling on the golden robes, another foreign language / stretching out the verbs and nouns together in a greeting." There's hints of the trade with the west: "rolling out the cotton shirt upon the carpet pillow." In that chorus, too, unmoored from the verses as it is: "Gideon lied and Gideon died, the force of China felt." And hints of violence and disaster: "Peering through the cutting wrist", "throttling children carelessly, a messy day with Clancy." No idea if the song is about anything specifically, but I think of the Boxer Rebellion.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Old China

Bob Neuwirth sings the verses on Old China, one of the prettiest songs on Last Day on Earth. Cale sings the chorus. Among the virtues of the album is that it feels like a real collaboration - it's very hard to figure who did what.

Just because it's pretty doesn't mean it isn't dark. It's an elegy for hope from a narrator who has chosen stasis. All the narrator does is talk and hope, and his hopes diminish with his inaction ("I threw that other chance away today") until all that's left to hope for is that time will slip away. The chorus, in the context of the album at large, seems to reference the nuclear age: "Cross your heart and hope to die / it'll happen in the blinking of an eye." (Nuclear apocalypse may have been a little anachronistic in 1994, but not that anachronistic. I was still obsessed with the possibilities in 1999.)

The music is very straightforward: some major key piano arpeggiations (coincidentally - it's a pretty trivial pattern - mimicking Pink Floyd's "If"), some beautiful strings (violin and viola?), and some simple but very piquant slide guitar. There are some tinkling synth-bells on the chorus that haven't aged well, but otherwise I can't complain about anything. I love the tone of the strings as the song ends.

"Sitting here talking 'bout Old China and how old ladies' hair will go to gray." I'm not sure whether it's "old China," i.e. porcelain, or "Old China," the China coming to grips with the rest of the world's existence. I like the ambiguity, but I always think of the period of so much turbulence and promise in the world's oldest civilization, and how gruesomely it came to an end at the hands of Kai-shek, the Japanese, Mao, and the Cultural Revolutionaries. I do not mean to attribute equal culpability to these four scourges, but from each according to his ability. Hoping for a speaking revolution, wishing that the crimes would go away.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Photo essay

The Eternal, Essential John Cale
Great photos from the late 70s or early 80s (I think), good overview of Cale's many careers.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Out of China

This Spanish-inflected piano and slide guitar piece is one of my least favorite pieces on Dance Music. The extremely fast piano part is hypnotic, but the slide guitar doesn't fit comfortably with it. I don't know if it's the tone of the guitar or the relative simplicity of its licks, but something doesn't match. The lack of development in the piano part would be fine, but the attempt at development of the piece using slide guitar seems a little random and unconvincing. The strings that come in nearly midway work much better with the piano part. But it's not enough.

It's perfectly listenable, mind. It's just not very notable. Coming between the expansive Baroque-inflected "Modelling" and the frightening "Death Camp" (both excellent), it seems like filler.

What it has to do with China or what China has to do with Nico, I cannot say. I presume it's a reference to something other than the country, but the name doesn't seem to fit the music. There is a certain feeling of travel to the piece, I suppose.


Monday, July 9, 2007

Russian Roulette

Good morning, class. Today Professor Cale will be giving the state of the world in his inimitable way. "The Russian Bear is hungry. He's dancing in his chains. His trainer's melancholic, feeling low and grey. He would have to dig for miles underground (soil) if not for Frenchmen dizzy from turning their backs on everyone's story, everybody's disgust, everybody's distrust. And John Wayne, he can't feel no pain 'cause he's got no brain. Japan, Japan, Japan, we love you, feed you hungry missiles... Russia is defective, defecting, defected. What's wrong with the Motherland? What's wrong with the Fatherland? Here comes the China Ku Klux Klan!"

Yeah, so, uh. "Russian Roulette" is a hilariously offensive song, a pissed rave-up that mashes global politics circa 1981 into a guacamole of random insults and bizarre imagery. The Russian Bear's trainer is presumably Brezhnev (nembutal numbs it all, but I prefer alcohol). Ronald Reagan is presumably satirized as John Wayne (and as another(!) crosseyed Paul McCartney?). If Maggie Thatcher's in there somewhere, I don't see where, though it's a curious omission. Really, I can't begin to explicate the lyrics. I'm not sure there's anything to explicate - like several other songs on Honi Soit, it seems to be stream-of-consciousness. I can't even make out all the words, much less make sense of them.

The music is pretty basic: a 4/4 beat with a few simple drum fills, a verse over a constantly repeating guitar part, and a slightly syncopated pseudo-chorus with a chunkier rhythm guitar part and some nice lead-guitar soloing from Sturgis Nikides. There's a great, frantic vocal. It's the rock-out track of the album, in the tradition of "Gun" or "Macbeth."

In closing: it's not an objectively great song, I admit. It's a very strange and problematic song. And yet it scratches an itch for me: it's unhinged and vomitific, an unstoppable torrent of images with no respect for anything human. (Distrust, disgust.) The aware human being can't escape a persistent, needling knowledge of the myriad darknesses in the heart of man. I can only really speak for myself, but our helplessness to put the world to rights generates a frustration that can only be dealt with through loud music or violence*. Sometimes both. And that's why I'm hooked on John Cale, one of the few recording artists qualified to soundtrack Rising Up and Rising Down.

* to inanimate objects only, please.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

China Sea

Beach Boys and heroin don't really seem to go together, but Cale's most faithful Beach Boys homage (echoing but not copying the structure and composition of "Add Some Music To Your Day" from 1970's Sunflower) is about a junkie in the China Sea. I think.

China Sea is a lecture, either to another person or to himself, of the classic "don't worry about him, he's fine" variety. I really don't know what it's about. The China Sea reference seems to be a red herring, to a certain extent. I don't think it has anything to do with Vietnam. I have my doubts whether any actual sailing is involved. It sounds like a stab at the classic pop song with a few dark flourishes, but there may be a layer of meaning I'm missing. I'll tell you, "Oh, Mama, she done told me so" sounds very strange coming out of this Welshman's mouth.

The song is broken into three parts. The main lyric takes the first minute, an instrumental break takes the second forty-five seconds, and a coda of "I can hear that whistle, I can hear it blowing" (sounding very much like the "add some, add some music" coda of that song) takes the last forty-five. The "building block" construction of the song fits very well with the Brian Wilson approach to music.

Musically, it's very pleasant. I mean, a loping bass riff intermingling with a warm synthesizer part, a very laid-back and gentle drum part (with a tambourine?!), all sorts of choral voices (many of them Cale, I think), and a very optimistic sounding string arrangement arching over the middle of the song. There are woodblock percussion-and-xylophone accents extremely reminiscent of some SMiLE-era tracks. The lead vocal is very smooth and poker-faced - if Cale wants it to be dark he's not showing it.

So what the fuck is this doing on Helen of Troy? I mean, this is lyrically Cale's darkest album bar none. For God's sake, this trifle is bookended by the title track, dripping with decadence and hatred, and the aforementioned Engine. It's a strange, strange choice, but characteristic of this schizophrenic album. It seems to work - the transition from Helen is a little jarring (but anything would seem jarring next to that), but the transition into Engine is surprisingly smooth - though it contributes to the uneven feeling of an unbalanced, unbalancing album. I think it's by design: very uncomfortable, but you're feeling it. A pleasant song makes an unpleasant album less pleasant. Kudos, Mr. Cale.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Chinese Takeaway (Hong Kong 1997)

John Cale has an interest in China. Not an obsession or preoccupation or anything sordid like that, but an interest. And in the interest of providing some thematic contour to this project, I'm going to explore it for a while.

For those who don't follow Asian politics, the title of this song refers to the completion of the lease the British had signed on the New Territories of Hong Kong back in 1898. In the late 1970s, the People's Republic of China became rather adamant that the British never had sovereignty anywhere in Hong Kong and that, upon completion of the lease, the British administration had better pack up and go home. But despite the evocative and utterly tasteless title, I don't really know how to connect "Chinese Takeaway (Hong Kong 1997)", from 1985's Artificial Intelligence, with that thematic thread.

This isn't a song, and whatever political intentions it has are rather, um, obfuscated. What this is is a drum machine track with some impromptu goofing around on the synthesizer. Cale:

  • quotes J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (for vampiric effect, I suppose)
  • plays a little melody that sounds improvised
  • quotes what sounds like a Bach chorale that I can't place
  • plays some gently swaying chords with spaghetti-western whistling (Morricone?!)
  • quotes from the Air in Bach's Third Orchestral Suite (aka Air on the G String)
  • plays a child-like melody and punctuates it with a sinister laugh
  • goes out with a few minor screams atop a scary version of Für Elise.
Between most of these piano bits there appears a gently rocking (as in a cradle, not as in Sabotage) arpeggiated chord that sounds rather Caribbean, played on a synthesized harpsichord or somesuch.

The piece sounds sinister, taken as a whole, but it doesn't sound cohesive. It doesn't sound like a piece of music, it sounds like screwing around in the studio. Which is fine - that's what Beatles Anthology-type or Dylan Bootleg Series-type projects are for. This didn't really have any business being a main track on an album. This is probably the most obvious case in which Cale's tendency towards in-studio composition, improvisation, and few-takes recording really backfired.

It's a shame Cale didn't write a real song about this subject. But hey, we'll always have "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie and the Banshees.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Dr. Mudd

Dr. Samuel Mudd fixed up John Wilkes Booth's leg, broken after an appropriately dramatic jump from Abraham Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater. You know, for all the whining these days about entertainers talking politics, at least they don't get as involved as Booth. Nobody really knows whether Mudd was actually a conspirator in Lincoln's assassination (my bet's no) or whether he had doubts about turning Booth in (my bet's yes). In any case, he did almost four years before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

Now, what the assassination has to do with Chinese nuclear ambitions I don't know. Dr. Mudd the song is a fairly straightforward tract on the Red Menace. Cale revisits Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where "the children's hair fell out and all their skin turned blue." Whatcha gonna do? It seems to be a sympathetic warning to Taiwan and/or Japan, that maybe their American allies aren't very interested in helping them if it comes to all that: "The people back in Washington D.C., they've got a curious sidelong glance / it goes all the way from Capitol Hill up to the Pentagon. What they gonna do, what they gonna do when China drops a bomb on you?"

Which sounds dry and potentially dull, but no! This is a poppy new wave song, with great group backing vocals ("doo doo doo doo-ooh") and a sprightly and highly melodic main vocal line (even if Cale's vocal strain works against it). It's a great combination of dark subject matter with accessible music. It's also a terrible earworm, causing one to annoy the piss out of others when one putters around the house singing the chorus. *ahem*

And the band is hot. The guitar tones sound so good on Sabotage/Live it's criminal, and the playing is exceptional. The bass is a little lacking in force (the recording isn't the best), but it has nice lines. The drums work, providing tension and just a little disco feeling. Compositionally, it feels surprisingly like a Talking Heads song, or perhaps a funkier Siouxsie and the Banshees. Maybe it's not that precise, maybe the recording is naive at best, but the music captured on this album is incredible. I'd even call it a fundamental live recording. Thank god for CBGBs.

(This song is included on John Cale Comes Alive, which I have on vinyl and which I haven't listened to in a while. I'll withhold comment on that version until I hear it again. Can anyone recommend a good service for vinyl ripping, or a trustworthy USB sound card/preamp/turntable combo under $250? My turntable is OK for listening, but not really for recording from.)


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Crazy Egypt

Did you know that David Byrne collaborated with John Cale? No? Well, "collaborated" might be a little strong. He played Adrian Belew-esque background guitar noise on "Crazy Egypt," the clean-up track on 1996's Walking on Locusts. He's given a writing credit, but I'm not sure why he would want it.

Walking on Locusts is by far my least favorite Cale album. I'll explore more of the reasons for this later, but this track displays many of the problems the rest of the album has. There's the stagey speak-sung vocal - Cale said that he didn't feel the need to go over the top on this album, but he does go over the top, just in a different way. The result is a sort of Broadway musical feeling. Ugh. The tune wouldn't be so bad if it were sung (parts were recycled for HoboSapiens's Things and Twilight Zone), but it just kind of lies there.

There's the curiously static, artificial-feeling backing track. Byrne's guitar work is great. There's nothing wrong with the rhythm guitar or the drums. Yet I just don't feel it. It feels both constructed and sloppy at the same time.

The lyrics aren't bad, really. They're written in the style of Warren Zevon: "Me, I'm walking out of here, emptying the till / I'm calling up your lawyers and giving you the bill." They seem to describe a divorce in progress, but then again maybe it's about geopolitics ("You buy me the election, I'll sell you Japan"). Whatever the case, they deserve a better song than this. The faux New Orleans theme of the album is pretty effective here, even if it relies on cartoonish clichés to set the scene ("Rolling through the Mardi Gras, madman on the loose").

The most egregious thing here is the woo-woo girls. After many of the ... choruses?, they scream out "Crazy!!" in the sort of voice that you usually hear from Rob Zombie's guitar. It's an interesting idea, I'll grant, but in practice it's silly rather than effective.

(N.B. this is one of my better-liked songs from Walking on Locusts.)


Monday, July 2, 2007

Ari Sleepy Too

1998's Dance Music (aka Nico: Music for the Ballet) is my candidate as Cale's most essential "classical" album. Eschewing a program, he wrote music appropriate for the choreography and denied a strong connection between the music and Nico herself: "Biography is best left to historians, ballet to visionaries. The titles live closer to reality than the music." I can't speak to any of that, but this is great music, covering many feelings and moods. It moves from the intense to the peaceful to the mournful, and might be the most varied in mood of any of Cale's coherent (i.e. non-compilation) releases.

Between the almost Gorecki-like repetition and tension of "Death Camp" and the loneliness and intensity of "Iceberg I," "Ari Sleepy Too" is the piece's graceful, elegiac center. Carefully-chosen segments of Nico speaking, taken from The Andy Warhol Index flexidisc, hang suspended from invisible wires above the instrumentals: a string section providing the musical bed, with a slide guitar (sounding almost like a koto) and a violin or two trading off the lead melodic development.

A little piano comes in to finish the piece. "We're not really that sentimental."