Avant Pop a la Cale

Although it has by now become something of a redundancy to say so, John

Cale is one of the true--and few--Renaissance men of rock and roll. It's

certainly no accident that this man has been a crucial component of some

of the most critical moments in rock history: the first two albums by The

Velvet Underground alone would have fixed his place in the Rock and Roll

Hall of Fame, not to mention his production of the debut efforts by Iggy &

The Stooges, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith.

Oddly, perhaps, it is Cale's career as a solo artist which has, for all

the man's recognition elsewhere, remained in the background, probably for

the same reason which has allowed him to impact in so many areas: Cale is

a musical genius who can seemingly do anything he sets out to do--from

pure pop to classical, from madman rock to the most sublime balladry--and

chooses to do them all.

Cale is thus impossible to pigeonhole, and that makes him a marketing

nightmare. Compare him to his old friend/nemesis (depending on the day of

the week) from the VU, Lou Reed: with Reed, you pretty much know what to

expect, at least music-wise: a street-smart persona and three-chord rock

(and when he's on, no one does it better). Tellingly, Reed's greatest

recent departure from this formula was on his truly inspired collaboration

with Cale, Songs For Drella (1990), which celebrated the life and

work of Andy Warhol, the mentor of both men. On that release, both men

retrod the musical terrain they'd first plowed with the VU in the mid-'60s

tempered by the wisdom and expertise acquired in the many years since,

making an album that stands with anything either man has ever done,

together or apart. In the live performance video of Drella, where

both men remain stationary in a setting more suited to a chamber music

recital than a rock concert, Cale and Reed nevertheless produce more

sparks than can be found at any KISS extravaganza.

Truth be told, Cale has always been able to produce these sparks on his

own, while Reed has usually required an inspired collaborator (Cale, David

Bowie, Robert Quine) to ignite. The best of Cale's mid-70s hard-rock,

such as Fear, Sabotage and Honi Soit for instance, in

reality often beat Reed at his own game, as Cale came on like a

cocaine-crazed mad professor howling paranoid conspiracy theories into the

void (not entirely a fictional persona at that time), producing individual

masterpieces like "Gun," "Strange Times In Casablanca," and the always

awe-inspiring live staple, "Leaving It Up To You." However, again unlike

Reed, who is at this point seemingly trapped within an image he has

outgrown, the chameleon-like musical ability which has probably cost Cale

mass popularity has also enabled him to easily drop one persona and switch

to another: Walking On Locusts finds him attempting to return to

the mood and tone of an earlier period, the late 60s-early 70s sublime pop

albums Paris 1919 and the ironically-titled Vintage Violence

(although this element is to be found throughout his work).

Walking On Locusts, then, is avant-pop a la Cale: that is,

pop-rock with not just one, but many twists. "Dancing Undercover," the

album's opener, is downright jaunty,, as a matter of fact, with

Cale's fave thematics of spy-style dissimulation underscored by touring

mate B.J. Cole's trademark pedal-steel guitar (his solo here may mark the

first time that the instrument has ever sounded "psychedelic") and a

driving beat from Cale's VU partner Moe Tucker. This good-timey

atmosphere is quickly tempered, however, by the next number, the somber

"Set Me Free," an atmospheric ballad similar in feel to Vintage

Violence's "Amsterdam." A highlight of recent Cale concerts, this

one's a meditation on the nature of personal freedom beyond the usual

cliched rock and roll extollation of it. "Set Me Free" contains a number

of striking images, as singer implicitly asks the question, "free perhaps,

but free to be what?":

the streets are full of junkies

there's a lot of them about

you can feel them getting closer

they're breathing down your neck,

you're the only one left, the only one left

who doesn't want to be free . . .

you never asked to be free

"So What" is more sprightly avant-pop, replete with harmonica solo and

sparkling backing chorus, coming off like Cale's sly version of Leonard

Cohen's recent work, as he gleefully delineates any number of human

follies and repeatedly asks "What did we learn from that?", implying of

course, that we never learn anything at all. "Crazy Egypt" marks a brief

return to the sweaty paranoia of the Sabotage era, with Cale

narrating the tale of rip-off artist ("Microsoft is nothing / Your money's

safe with me") over an edgy, skewed funk riff reminiscent of Remain In

Light Talking Heads-- unsurprising, as it's supplied by David Byrne.

Things bog down a bit, however, on the next couple of tracks. "So Much

For Love" takes its bleak emotional cue from Cale's finest solo album,

1982's Music For A New Society, but, lacking the complex

arrangements typical of that work, comes off sounding a bit draggy and

enervated. "Tell Me Why" returns to more avant-pop territory, as Cale

delivers a generic lyric over an array of circular percussion, yet the

song never frees itself from a tentative, unfinished feel. The

amusingly-titled "Indistinct Notion of Cool," (taken from a music

journalist's review of another band), meanwhile, is a sleek little pop

number which doesn't aspire to anything more than it achieves.

After that spotty patch, "Secret Corrida" finally puts Walking On

Locusts firmly back on track, its moody, percussive atmospherics

recalling "Dying On The Vine," a great song from a spotty Cale album

called Artificial Intelligence (1985). Here, Cale employs a

bullfighting metaphor for the perils of romance, a lonely trumpet giving

the whole thing an appropriate, Spanish flavour. "Circus" is another

whimsical ditty which veers back and forth from the carnivalesque to the

classical, while "Gatorville and Points East" features a narrative which

again suffers from a feeling of hesitancy, especially in Cale's vocal, and

flies past without making any impression. "Some Friends," however, runs

deep, being a passionate lament for the passing of Cale's VU partner,

Sterling Morrison: Cale sings in his most emotive form here as he

describes the revelation, upon visiting the terminally ill guitarist, that

"some friends pass on." Finally, the album's closer, the determinedly

upbeat "Entre Nous," strikes an appropriate resigned-to-it-all, chin-up

attitude, a bittersweet reflection on the inevitability of change, and our

inability to fix a happy situation in time.

Walking On Locusts is no doubt the most accessible music Cale's

done for some time, although it may disappoint fans of his more hard-edged

work. There's a resigned sadness to many of the songs here, as if Cale's

brush with mortality in the death of his old bandmate and friend Morrison

has caused him to look back on his own life and begin the task of

assessment. Even Cale's usually powerful Welsh voice seems reined-in

here, as if he's holding back. Given the overall result, I think we can

assume that this is a job which Cale isn't quite ready for, or totally

comfortable with--as further evidence, only a few months ago, I saw him

deliver a manic, inspired solo set here in Toronto. The "old" boy ain't

done raging yet, but until he's ready to rock once again, Walking On

Locusts satisfies as a reflective musical aside from one of the finest

musicians of the twentieth century.