New EMI Album: ‘blackAcetate:’
Released October 3rd
In a career that features cultural landmarks from Andy Warhol to Shrek, and collaborators ranging from LaMonte Young to Super Furry Animals, John Cale has proved that for this maverick Welshman, business as usual means delivering the unexpected. blackAcetate:, his second album for EMI, after 2003’s acclaimed HoboSapiens, maintains this unpredictable consistency.
HoboSapiens saw Cale liberated by the potential of Pro Tools, which allowed him to harness a variety of sounds to make music that was unachievable via traditional analogue recording. The result was an album acclaimed as “radical” or even “vintage Cale”. This time around, the aim was a more ensemble feel, with more traditional instrumentation, including electric guitars, making for songs that could be played live without a mountain of computer equipment. But while there are recognisable instruments aplenty, complementing beautiful, simple melodies, the surprises keep on coming from the very first song.
John Cale’s current listening includes Gorillaz, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and most of the music emanating from the production powerhouses of Dre and Pharrell: “I love the working atmosphere Dre generates,” he enthuses, “it’s a music factory and that’s something I aspire to”. For the most part, these artists demonstrate that the musical eclecticism Cale has championed for four decades is alive and well. They have also inspired Cale’s own take on Urban grooves and rhythms: “I’m interested in funk, and if I’m good at that, then that’s another string to my bow”. Throughout, Cale is assisted by a small team including Mickey Petralia and headed by co-producer, drummer and bassist Herb Graham Jr has a heavy jazz and funk background from arrangement/prod work with Macy Gray to experimentalists the Watts Prophets. So it was a new landscape for me to explore.“
This diverse range of abilities and influences ensure that blackAcetate: springs constant surprises, not least opening song OuttaTheBag, which sees Cale’s gruff baritone replaced by a startling falsetto, overlaying an infectious groove with a melody which, after only one or two listens, is almost impossible to dislodge from your memory. Arresting and accessible, it signals an album on which anything is possible, as long as the song functions ”on an emotional level. That’s where it has to work for me.“ It’s this emotional intensity that gives the album consistency, even as we switch from funk to devotional, romantic songs like Satisfied, and the almost unbearably poignant Gravel Drive, a love song to Cale’s daughter Eden that could stand as an apology from every busy musician to loved ones for their incessant absences on tour or in the studio.
Recorded during a period of almost profligate creativity, blackAcetate: started out with a shortlist of roughly 48 songs, with no central theme emerging until the closing weeks: ”The experimental side was really Brotherman, that was one that I had no idea at the time what it was about. Then there are four songs that emerged during the last few weeks, as I was experimenting with detuned guitars and hard riffs. There was a fight over Perfect, which Herb described as the perfect ‘knucklehead’ song. And then once the funk side came into focus on Hush, everything became much simpler.“
Conceived in a dressing room, with an electric guitar, Perfect is an unrestrained rocker, as Herb’s comments would suggest – except that, as Cale reminds us, there’s irony in there too: ”I don’t believe that anybody these days thinks anything is perfect any more“.
Those who have followed Cale’s career would agree that his stellar CV constitutes a licence to be eclectic. Born in South Wales, he studied at Goldsmiths College in New Cross, London, before winning a scholarship to Boston University’s Summer School, collaborating with LaMonte Young and Aaron Copland. Ultimately, Cale rejected the insularity of the classical music scene, before teaming up with Lou Reed to blaze his influential trail with the Velvet Underground. The subject of thousands of magazine articles, dozens of books, and the heroes of generations of musicians, the Velvets would become feted as one of the most influential rock bands of all time. Yet after Cale departed the New York outfit, his production work alone – working with the likes of Nico, the Stooges, Patti Smith and Happy Mondays – made at least as telling an impact on the music of successive generations. His solo work would demonstrate almost unthinkable creativity: Vintage Violence, boasting some beautiful melodies, and varied arrangements within a generally conventional rock setting, was recorded over the same week as its successor, Church Of Anthrax, a challenging collaboration with Terry Riley that many regard as a key signpost to the world of ambient music. Unsurprisingly, then-record company Columbia delayed its release until 1971, concerned that Cale was simply too productive for his own good. The ’70s and ’80s saw that creativity undiminished, although some works, notably 1982’s stunning Music For A New Society, were destined for the pantheon of neglected masterpieces, its poignant, beautiful melodies overlooked by those who found its emotional depths too vertiginous.
Over subsequent decades, Cale would record works based on the poetry of Dylan Thomas, soundtracks for movies directed by everyone from Jonathan Demme (Something Wild) to Patrick Mazur (Saint-Cyr), make a guest appearance with the Super Furry Animals, and reunite with Lou Reed for 1990’s Song for Drella, as well as a subsequent six-week tour with the short lived reformed Velvet Underground. Then there’s a beautifully-crafted autobiography, What’s Welsh For Zen, that gives revealing insights into the complex twists and turns of a maverick, challenging, productive career that Cale feels is being reinvigorated by his move to into the digital age: ”Until I got through HoboSapiens, I realised I was trying to do all these things with analogue means and the digital revolution just like took care of it. If you couldn’t get to grips with it, the only real answer to that is you didn’t work hard enough.“
As Cale’s current work rate demonstrates, with more soundtrack contributions, appearances at Patti Smith’s recent Meltdown, as well as the eagerly-awaited new album, the accusation of not working hard enough is not likely to be directed his way. He cites current rock inspiration from the White Stripes, Bloc Party and the Strokes and whilst he aspires to the work rate of Dr Dre, who books recording studios for six months at a time, for Cale music remains an emotional outlet, as well as a cerebral challenge: ”It’s about gut instincts. And it’s got to work at an emotional level. But I’m not gonna turn soppy with it!"
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