Sunday, January 25, 2009

Everytime the Dogs Bark

So, as promised, next time. The official John Cale Sunday morning record, 1985's Artificial Intelligence, is led off by the song "Everytime the Dogs Bark" (referenced in a verse or two of 2005's blackAcetate's leadoff track Outta the Bag). It's the dawn of a new era in his career, and it shows in his songwriting.

The album, whose Lazarus "Ratso" Sloman-assisted composition should indicate debauchery and dissolution, is in fact something of a cleanup album. For all its anger and randomness there's a new self-consciousness and a desire to present some sort of respectable front to the world. I should really save this stuff for the post on "Song of the Valley," though. The leadoff track, then.

At first and several subsequent listens, it's a bit of a mess, sonically: artificial instrumental keyboard textures, weirdly processed guitar, and a sort of 80s-funk feel that might well be repulsive. Many people, in fact, do seem to find it repulsive. But not me. Partly because Cale's vocal is clean and strong and aggressive, no longer the overly affected vocal of Caribbean Sunset, trying too hard to reassert itself. Partly because I can't resist that opening lyric:

If you want to be the heart of midnight, you've gotta be either cynical or dead.
All those you hold in estimation no longer count among your friends.

The lyrics sort of meander from there, though, and I can't tell you what the hell the song's supposed to be about. But the money moment, the one that contributes the title to the song and provides that reference twenty years later, that's probably what really hooked me on the song:

Listen to the slamming doors
Listen to the ship-to-shore
Listen and listen hard
Everytime the dogs bark

The music there, keyboard chords like huge bells being struck and everything else falling silent, combined with Cale's vocal (touching the edge of danger and threat without going too far, without losing control), makes me think of some escaped and vengeful convict, hauling himself onto shore after an exhausting swim - an escape from an island prison - a pursuit of some black demon ship - I dunno. Some great, anachronistic, fantastical adventure out of Dumas or Alan Moore. It gives a context (or a Greek chorus?) to the disconnected verse lyrics that allows them to resonate better than they should - and played a big role, along with other songs on this album, in informing my understanding of Cale's view of his own career.

But let me put a word in for the music. Instrumentally, it's really not the genuine bad fake funk (rebadged disco?) of the 80s. It's something more respectable than that. (Hell, it's not far from "Outta the Bag" or even real Beck-funk.) The guitar work is really quite tasty. And I do have a thing for dirty, messy, noisy, artificial 80s keyboards. And this was one of the first Cale records I heard, after Fragments and Paris 1919 and the doom trilogy. So perhaps I am uniquely qualified to enjoy this track - but I hope not.

Further back up the chain of references: As I fell further into Cale-addiction, picking up the obscure and rare releases one by one off foreign web stores and eBay and less reputable sources, I snagged one particularly odd release. And when I got to the second track, one of the least in-control and respectable tracks on one of his least in-control and respectable albums, it struck me that this song referenced it. So maybe next time we'll visit that seedy and disreputable part of his career.


Thursday, January 22, 2009


[nor is this]

Funny how old things can sound relevant after twenty years, isn't it? Something happens to you personally or happens in the world that gives new life to some odd little painting or movie or song? I mean, in 2005, when I first heard that martial drumbeat, the crude production, that off-kilter bassline, and then way behind the beat those "Bomberettes" (who are they?) chanting


And all of a sudden, a song for which I had no expectations started to make sense to me. What it looked like in my head was something like this. (Sorry for the crudity of technique and content. I'm not a video man.)

I don't know how long beyond the last administration this song will continue to resonate with me. After all, it's already something of a novelty number on an album with several novelty numbers. But for as long as it lasted, it was remarkable.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Thoughtless kind.

[this is not next time]

If you grow

The best things in John Cale's catalogue do not get the most releases or the most exposure. Or the best recordings, even.

If you grow tired

They might not cry out for attention. They might be buried under an avalanche of noise and aggressively push the listener away. They might be slathered underneath snickering and tape clicks and random keyboard twinkling. You might not realize for quite some time that those versions might be the best ones, the ones that most fully realize the possibilities of the song.

If you grow tired of the friends you make

You might start out with a live version (on Fragments of a Rainy Season, mostly). You might crave a hearing of another version, before being hit with the awful reality of the studio recording. In case you mean to say something else.

Other versions you find might get overly mannered and fussy, and lose some of the soul. It's hard to put your finger on it, but there's just something off. Maybe it's just an unreflective night for the artist. Say they were the best of times you ever had. The best of times with the thoughtless kind.

Or they might be sloppy and aggressively goony and full of drunken foolishness, and after the initial shock you might be surprised at how well they hit the mark. We dress conservatively at the best of times, prefer the shadows to the bright lights in the eyes of the ones we love.

Or they might hit the right balance of feelings: sentimentality and contempt. Nostalgia and nausea. Remembrances of past glory and the bitterness of irremediable mistakes. What we see, what we imagine. The eyes tell us nothing. The bright lights in the eyes of the ones we love will tell us nothing like the scars of imagination.

But when you get down to it, a song is more a possibility space than a specific set of words and chords (I mean, it's just G C Am D - not so far different from "Good Riddance" ferchrissakes in music or topic or live execution). It's the space defined by the way it sounds and the life experiences of the artist and the words and your own life experiences and the best and worst and most extreme performances of it, and the volume of that space depends greatly on the individual experiencing it.

And yet there are more of us who value, even treasure, those possibility space, than there are people to create them. Maybe this feeling of shared understanding or experience is an illusion, but it's one I wouldn't give up for anything.

The bright lights in the eyes of the ones you love will tell us nothing except we're the thoughtless kind. So if you grow tired of the friends you make, never, never turn your back on them. Say they were the best of times you ever had. The best of times were the thoughtless kind. The very best of times with the thoughtless kind.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Outta The Bag

Oh, this isn't a very dignified way to enter the new year, with a strained falsetto and a Beck-lite ironic-funk rhythm track. Outta the Bag isn't nearly as clever as Cale seems to think, seeing as he chose it lead off his weirdly paced blackAcetate. But is it enjoyable?

To me it certainly is. The adventurous and restless vocal melody is very appealing once one adjusts to the multitracked falsettos in Cale's timeworn voice. The different layers of instrumental funk are pure ear candy, the instrumental drop out a minute and three quarters in is awesome, and so is the monotone rhythm guitar chord chop that starts at 2m40s - like one of Neil Young's infamous one-note guitar solos, allowing the rest of the song to rotate around it. And the pure daffiness - bird chirps, the "the birdies sing: woo hoo hoo" coda - is quite welcome, fitting as it does with the album's goal of puncturing inflated perceptions of Cale as artiste.

The live version loses a lot of the fun but gains a little live energy. I don't know if it's a worthwhile trade.

The lyrics aren't half bad either, though not revelatory. It's Cale's take on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" - delivering the bad news to an unfaithful partner, maybe. The words are spiky and passive aggressive and a good mixture of vague and specific. There are some evocative lyrics. I can't complain!

In particular, I really like the way it continues a two-decade chain of references. More on this next time.