Riverbank

This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.

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The River

This song is also by Brian Eno. It’s a slight bit strange that Eno wrote two songs with the same title with different collaborators, but I’ll take it. They’re markedly different songs. The last one was more David Byrne than Eno. This one is from Eno and John Cale’s Wrong Way Up, and it’s more Eno than Cale. In fact it’s the only song on that record credited only to Eno. Eno’s solo vocal songs have become increasingly rare since the seventies, and that’s a shame; they’re a lot more enjoyable than ambient digital soundscapes. So this makes this one a particular favorite of mine. It’s so soothing.

Reading My Mind

John Cale is one of the few remaining luminaries whose lights are still on. He’s steadfastly been doing his thing with little regard to what’s trending, confident that his brand of challenging art rock exists outside the reach of trends. Though he may have a relatively small audience, he can also be confident that his music is a necessity to his fans in a way that more accessible artists’ may not be. In fact, the further we roll along in this fractured world, the more of a necessary relief it becomes to hear a consistently challenging and intellectual voice. A John Cale record isn’t what you’d call escapey funtime music, but it offers a singular point of view, which is in itself an escape. An escape from a pop culture where nobody seems to know what they’re aiming to be, besides popular. We want an artist who knows who he is and knows his own vision, just as much as we’re attracted to people who  know who they are IRL.

Please

File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole (not like you!) Pablo Picasso was an asshole. As artists are wont to be. He had an ego inversely proportionate to his height and really got around with the ladies despite being a dick. You can get away with a lot of bad shit when you’re an undisputed genius, and picking up girls is the least of it. The point of the song is  not so much Pablo Picasso’s personal proclivities; it’s shooting down the sacred cows we resent and admire for the privilege their singularity grants them. The genius gets to do what he wants, the things other people work for are handed to him, and his legacy remains blameless; you, in the meantime, are just some asshole.

Outta the Bag

Cultural initiative for the future: cut down on compulsively listening to the same handful of records and add more frequently to the regular rotation. That includes exploring the fringe ends of some of my favorite artists’ discographies. For example, I love John Cale, but I rarely listen to anything besides my three or four favorite albums. Actually, more like two, if I’m really being honest. I think that I can be forgiven for not getting quite as excited about the prospect of a new John Cale record as I do for more, shall we say, glamorous artists. Also, the world doesn’t get terribly excited about a new John Cale album, so there’s a handful of recent ones I hand’t actually heard about. Did you know that he re-recorded Music for a New Society, presumably for a newer society? That’s worth checking out. For today, I’m going to explore blackAcetate, which I own but have never once listened to. Please join me.

Only Time Will Tell

You know who I haven’t listened to in a while? The great, underrated John Cale. I haven’t listened to Sabotage in so many years, I forgot it existed. Wow, what a great record! It really showcases the full range of Cale’s weirdness, from his affinity for pure tone-noise to his deft handed ballads. This song is of the latter category, sung by percussionist Deerfrance. In the vein of Moe Tucker’s contributions to the Velvet Underground, a vulnerable female voice balances out the aggression heard elsewhere. It’s hard to find out much about Deerfrance; a web search predictably yields many pictures of antlered wildlife (and the woman in the photo above is Cale’s first wife, the fashion designer Betsey Johnson.) But she was a habitue of the punk scene at CBGB’s, a member of Cale’s band from 1978 to 1981, and later formed her own band, Extra Virgin Mary.