Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ski Patrol

The most fillerly filler on Slow Dazzle (and in the Island years in general), "Ski Patrol" plays the syndicated sitcom to Cale's Lynchian miniatures and cinematic epics. Or the Snow Patrol to those songs' Velvet Underground: not worth skipping, but not worth intentionally listening to either.

There's nothing irritating about it - it has an interesting hint of a political spin on it ("And the candidates who ran"), it's pleasant listening, he puts in a good vocal. But there's nothing to sink your teeth in, nothing to actually inspire feeling. It's curiously static. It feels improvised, but there's no risk to it. It's a sweet nothing.

Interestingly, it sounds more like Vintage Violence than like anything else post-VV. Maybe it's a demonstration of the dead end his pastoral period might have ended in. Or maybe not.

(All that being said, it gets stuck in my head irritatingly often.)


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Antarctica Starts Here

You know the drill...

Shackle: Another remake from John Cale. He's making a cottage industry of these, eh?

Ibert: These aincher typical remakes, Jean. No Oceans 11 or Italian Job here.

Shackle: I'll admit that. And this is difficult material he's working with - Cable Hogue was no cakewalk, but to take on Sunset Blvd. - and bring something new to it! - is an impressive feat.

Ibert: Yes, "Antarctica Starts Here" captures something about the material that neither the original nor other attempts at reenvisioning (such as noted director Alan Sparhawk's impressionistic take, "From Your Place on Sunset") could.

Shackle: The staginess here was an initial sticking point for me. It's a problem usually encountered in stage plays: when King Lear is playing to the back of the auditorium, the people in the front-row seats just see a ham caked in make-up. But at some point... I think it was the second time through... the artificiality of the performance somehow gets at the nature of the material in a more direct way.

Ibert: And to cut away the fake realism of the original's framing conceits and to introduce a cruel and derisive narrator - perhaps the voices of the Fates - it cuts away any pretensions the characters have. And yet in the narrator's admiration for their excesses it exposes some of the hidden beauty of human pride and folly. A mainspring of Cale's finest work, by the way.

Shackle: The most impressive thing is how he turned an existing - er, semi-? - fictional universe and brought it organically into his body of work at the time. It marks an end to, some say, his greatest work - a period of small, unassuming works with depth and gravity - but what an ending. Take it from this skeptic - even a non-Cale fanatic will come away from Antarctica with a new perspective on a timeless story. And it deserves every viewer it gets.

Ibert: This means you.


Friday, February 22, 2008

American Psycho

Oh, it's typical, ladies and gentlemen. Sad, but so typical. We've established that Mr. Cale has written scores for many films: some films good, some not; some scores good, some not; some scores released on album, some not; some popular, the vast majority not. So what happens when he writes one of the best scores of his career for a film that, if not a blockbuster, was seen by millions of people?

Well, of course, the soundtrack album released for the film is your typical "various artists" selection. There are a few score excerpts, but they're voiced over by the titular psycho killer, Christian Bale, who, though f-f-f-far better than many narrators, is still an obstruction to my goal, which is hearing the goddamn John Cale score.

A-and it's a hell of a score. It's a little mushy in the late middle, but starts with a bang and ends the same way. The spirit of Bernard Hermann is here (notably on "The Men's Room") - unique for a Cale soundtrack. The piano figure on "The Ritual," while rather unimaginative, is haunting for what's done with it. On "Packing for Paul" Cale recalls his theme for director Mary Harron's earlier film I Shot Andy Warhol. There's a lot of rhythmic tension throughout - unlike some of his more meandering soundtracks, this is mostly a frenetic and tense experience.

When it slows and calms down, though, the effect is powerful - on "The Office," for instance, the eastern-European-feeling horns give the piece an off-kilter nature that's simultaneously threatening and laughable, while the Ligeti influences on "The Second Time"/"The Bloodbath - The Chainsaw" are more effective for being isolated. The churning strings on "The Police" and "The Wrong Building" lose me out of the context of the film, but the Eastern European folk intro of "The Confession" grabs me again.

The most striking track of the score is "The Day Planner" - the weird vocals (by the Mediaeval Babes) are creepy and beautiful, and the sudden appearance of voice has an impressive transformative effect on the soundtrack, allowing for a transition into the drone and serenity of "The End." "American Psycho (Reprise)" provides a smirking, sprightly, sinister finish to it all.

Great stuff! Of note is an interview Cale did about the score, giving a little insight into how he approaches film composition. Screaming rabbits? Yow. He is into music for interrogations!

Psst... there's something nice hiding in the first comment...


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Primary Motive

The number and variety of John Cale's scores is pretty unique for a guy who kept his day job as a rock star (unlike that loser Danny Elfman). With a few notable exceptions, though, the films in question are fairly obscure and sometimes not very good.

I mean, I wouldn't expect Cale's name on an hour-long political thriller starring a guy from St. Elmo's Fire and a former child actor from "Family Ties," would you? How did he even get the job? Anyway, Primary Motive came out (on tv? straight to VHS? oh, regional theatrical release) in 1992, smack in the middle of his temporary hiatus from solo rockery and his Eno/Reed/Eno/Neuwirth collaboration streak.

The score, as it appears on Paris S'eveille, is a seven-minute tidbit. It's composed of several movements:

  1. Factory Speech: All bubbling tension and squawking synth horns. I like the composition, but Cale's synth proclivities of the period are seldom more unfortunate.
  2. Strategy Session: Synth strings, somewhat reminiscent of an Eno Variation on Pachelbel's Canon, but not as good.
  3. Closing Titles: More pensive synth strings, then a snare-drum laced credits-roll synth bass bit with some reggae touches. Weird.
It's definitely one of the weaker pieces on the compilation, which is not overly strong to start with. But it's not even the weirdest. Oh well. I suppose one has to pay the bills.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Black Rose

Ladies and gents, in honor of the Academy Awards, please welcome back our friends, analysts, discussants, Jean Shackle and Reginald Ibert...

Shackle: To be a pretty new face in the heart of showbiz. It's the subject of so many songs and books and films and fantasies, and frankly it's not very interesting anymore. It doesn't matter whether it ends in tragedy or in triumph, it's simply worn out.

Ibert: You might say the same about wild west pictures. It's all in the execution, my friend, and John Cale got it right with "Black Rose." It's not a classic picture, I suppose, but it's a beauty: a lyrical little noir.

Shackle: It's graceful, I'll give it that. But graceful assembly can't redeem a collection of clichés. Look at this!

Standing on the corner, just baying at the moon
Just another little Miss Too-Much Far-Too-Soon

Ibert: My mother once told me that cliché is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, any single element isn't notable, but it's a beautiful arc it follows, and it leaves you with a feeling - which is more than many films do.

Shackle: Well, the main feeling it leaves me with is disappointment. He seems to run out of ideas towards the end, and ends with a straightforward lifting of material from his much finer "Verses."

Ibert: Jean, this came out fifteen years earlier than that.

Shackle: Hum. Still, as the noted film soundtrack composer T.E.Yorke might say, THUMBS DOWN.

Ibert: Have you no soul? Bah, don't listen to this man. It's an excellent piece from an underrated and forgotten period of Cale's work, and worth your attention. A big thumbs up from me.


Friday, February 15, 2008

(I Keep a) Close Watch

(Fik shun)

Akron, Ohio. Late 1977.

"I got it!"
"Got what?"
"John Cale's last album. The album they wouldn't release here."
"Whaddya mean? Guts just came out."
"Guts wasn't a real album, just random songs from his last two albums."
"Huh. So what's this album?"
"Helen of Troy. The cover's, uh, kinda cheesy. Cale is in a straitjacket on an antique chair, and some woman is making a face from a mirror on the wall. I haven't actually listened to it yet. Do you wanna come over?"
"Sure, gimme twenty minutes."

Half of Akron, Ohio's John Cale fanclub sped across the city to visit the other half.

"So where did you get it?"
"Man, I told you already. Dave went to England for a couple weeks with his folks. I asked him to send me a copy if he could find it. I gave him money, a pile of money, for it. I still owe him, he says."
"Well, put it on!"

You can imagine the many layers of confusion side one of this schizophrenic album inspired in the membership that day. (Can you? Hell, can I?) Hard rock, hard rock with a gay guy doing the sexy monologue instead of Judy Nylon, pseudo-Beach Boys, whatever the hell that was, more hard rock, murderous gay desperados. And then on the flip side... the first cut is a big sentimental love song drenched in echo and huge sappy string orchestration?!

"I don't know about this, man."
"Yeah, it... is... a little strange."

Little did these two young Ohioans know that the song in question was trying desperately to have a great performer cover it. Cale wanted so badly* to have Frank Sinatra sing "(I Keep a) Close Watch" - he hired the orchestra, carefully calibrated the melody, ripped off one of Johnny Cash's best lines, kept the lyrics universal enough that Frank could do that thing he did. But it didn't work. Maybe the fact that it was lodged between a song about gay love and murder in the Wild West and a song about Pablo Picasso never getting called an asshole had something to do with it. Or the fact that the album that featured it was never released in the US. Or maybe it just wasn't up to Frank's standards.

Anyway, what we got was an over-the-top pile of sloppy sentimentality in performance and instrumentals and arrangement on top of a touching but slight song. It's a shame Cale can't do this one over again.

* According to the contributor of liner notes to Seducing Down the Door. Blame him if it's not true.

(I Keep a) Close Watch/Mama's Song

"Hi, this is Terry."
"Hey man, how's it going."
"Pretty good. Sandy's under the weather, but she's doing a little better. How are you and Vicky?"
"Fine, fine. I mean, she left last night, but that's fine."
"Aw, shit. I'm sorry to hear that."
"You shouldn't be. I'm not."
"OK. I am, though. Well, the reason I called... this is gonna sound kind of silly now."
"C'mon now, I'm a man. I can take it. Hell, I'm a free man now."
"Well, OK. Do you ever listen to John Cale anymore?"
"Yeah, once in a while. Paris 1919 and Fear, anyway. Heh, you know, that record really pissed off Vicky. Maybe I'll put it on..."
"Well, his new one came into the store. It's... it's pretty fucked-up."
"Really? Like Helen of Troy? Or do you mean good fucked-up?"
"Heh, ouch. No, this is good, I think. But it's painful stuff."
"Helen of Troy was pretty painful. Remember how excited you were to get it?"
"It's not that bad. Besides... you remember that 'Close Watch' song?"
"The Disney song?"
"Yeah, uh, that one. Well, he recorded it again."
"No, no, this is great. It's really... desolate. No strings. Nothing. Just him and his piano... and some organ... and... weird stuff. And it's the most pleasant thing on the album."
"Well, if you want to hear it some time, I've got it. Just let me know."
"Sure, I will."
"You wanna go out for a drink Friday?"

So, yeah, social engagements and such aside, the record eventually did change hands.

And on its return:
"Yeah, fucked up is right. Shit, I'm never listening to that again. But you're right, I do appreciate Close Watch a lot more now... until the fucking BAGPIPES start! Let me know when he makes a rock album again."

I Keep a Close Watch

Fifteen years after Helen of Troy destroyed the Akron Ohio Chapter of the International John Cale Fan Club, our friends, still in contact as they arc through middle age, happen to reminisce about music. Which leads to...
"You know, he released the best album he ever made a couple weeks ago."
"Aw, no. I heard some of that Andy Warhol album - the wife borrowed it from the library. Not my thing."
"No, not that. This is a solo acoustic live album. It's the best live album I own."
"You own an awful lot of live albums."
"I'm not exaggerating on this one."
"Heh, you seem serious enough. You know, I kind of would like to hear some of those songs again. Can you make me a tape?"
"Sure. Hey, you know...
"... he does Close Watch!"

An intro like "This is a love song, so hold onto someone you love," deserves a groan. But sandwiched between "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hallelujah," Close Watch finally found a context that made sense - not to mention its best recorded performance. And you know what? That's the year the Akron John Cale Fan Club reformed... at least for a while.

Here's a video for your trouble, from a 1983 solo gig down under:


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Empty Bottles

It's a shame that the only official recording of this unknown classic is from the essential, horribly recorded, and shadily published Reed/Cale/Nico album Le Bataclan 1972. "Empty Bottles" does better as a mainstream ballad of loser love than anything else Cale would write, and could have perhaps gone somewhere as a single. So of course he gives it to Leonard Cohen accompanist and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" singer Jennifer Warnes, whose 1972 album Jennifer he was producing at the time, and never bothers recording it himself. (Jennifer, naturally, would never see reissue or CD release - though a 2007 twofer rerelease confusingly reused the name.)

It's interesting to hear Lou Reed providing lead acoustic guitar work over Cale's rhythm, even if the two sometimes seem at cross-purposes. The instrumental track is pretty unremarkable G/C strummy stuff. What makes the song is the knowledge of the narrator that this relationship is mutually self-destructive, and his commitment to it anyway. The lovely vocal melody helps, especially on the bridge:

And I do love you, against all odds
Though you don't know what I want
We're much poorer than that bottle
More foolish than that wine

John Cale and Miss Cindy of the GTOs would marry that year.

I'd post contemporary indie band The Ladybug Transistor's cover of the song, but it's up for sale on Amazon now. So, have a listen to a speed-corrected version of the Bataclan performance instead and raise a toast to Mr. Cale.


Monday, February 11, 2008


I admit, John Cale tends more towards "relationship" songs of the tragic, regretful, angry, &c. nature than he does towards the "love song" per se. Most serious songwriters do, don't they? Because art loves conflict, and love and lust cause as much conflict as any other human feelings - no surprises here.

But Cale does put some uniquely weird spins on things. He can write a love song revolving around the hostility of the outside world, a common enough trope; but (giving him as much credit as possible) he seems to plant clues that argue against the hostility of the outside world, that even imply (stretching, here) that the hostile wasteland is the unavoidable - maybe even desirable - result of the forces of love.

(studio version)

Then again, he can write a love song with poison-pen lyrics like Woman, using an atonal verse and an anthemic chorus (building to an over-the-top synth choir coda). It might be my favorite song on blackAcetate - for an album I feel lukewarm about, there sure are a lot of candidates - but it stretches the boundaries of the genre a fair long way. (The Circus Live version is enjoyable enough, but having a riff and more than a trace of melody on the verses ruins the texture of the song. It's better than that live album's mediocre average, but that's saying little.)

"You're ignorant. You're cool. You never learned to say you're sorry."

No real idea nor little interest about who it's actually about, but... well... it says something that somebody made this video. The thought had occurred to me, too.

(live version)