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Location: Roxbury, Massachusetts, United States

Trying to bring some light to the past while igniting the future one album and artist at a time. This was previously attempted as EXODUS IN STEREO, but this time, baby, it's for real. ;-)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

John Cale VINTAGE VIOLENCE (Columbia) 1970

The last thing anyone would have expected John Cale to do in 1970 was to put out a pop masterpiece. However, that is just what he did with his astonishingly underrated debut solo album Vintage Violence. Cale, fresh from his stint (and unceremonious firing by Lou Reed) in The Velvet Underground at their most raunchiest, as well as production for the first self-titled Stooges (Elektra/1969) album and extensive work on former bandmate Nico's horrifyingly beautiful second album The Marble Index (Elektra/1969), churned out not the cacophonous noise he was probably expected to do (though he would do that with his next album, Church of Anthrax (Columbia/1971), in collaboration with avant-garde titan Terry Riley), but rather a reasonably easy going, occasionally lush, always harmonious, downright lovely, and sometimes funny album in collaboration with the NYC band Grinder's Switch (who aren't credited as such), led by Garland Jeffreys, who also contributed the song "Fairweather Friend".

But what of this album? I found a copy on vinyl in a thrift shop a few years ago which I recently passed along to a friend as a thank you for helping me move. He was completely unaware of the album at all, even though he was a big fan of Cale's Island records. He later said to me "why didn't I know about this album?" Cale for many years only performed a few songs off of it in concert, namely "Amsterdam" (which he also performed with Reed at the VU near-reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972. Reed, much to his own, er, something, had some trouble with the chords) and "Ghost Story". More recently Cale has been including "Hello, There" and "Gideon's Bible" in his sets (though when I saw him give a stellar near two hour performance in 2005 at the Middle East in Cambridge he did not play "Gideon's Bible", though I believe that was due to the fact that someone loudly requested it). However, it seems to have slipped through the cracks a bit, being overshadowed by Paris 1919 (Reprise/1973) (which is, in some ways, almost a West Coast version of Vintage Violence), the Island albums, and even many of the albums that came after.

But what of the album? The "melting face" cover notwithstanding (actually Cale behind a glass mask, the mask itself easily viewed in the back cover photo-note that the front cover is not too dissimiler in layout, proportion, and execution to that of Terry Riley's A Rainbow In Curved Air [Columbia/1968/view right]), there's Mr. Cale himself goofily dressed shirtless in suspenders and bow tie (a comment, perhaps, that the VU didn't even leave him with the shirt on his back?), his soon to be ex-wife Betsey Johnson dressed like nothing so much as a Welsh housewife. Betsey is standing on a dartboard, there appears to be an unused pom-pom in front of them, and an empty champagne glass is in evidence as well. Huh?

But what of this album? The record opens with "Hello, There", a jaunty piano driven full band tune with double tracked vocals (slightly out of sync in what was most definitely what Cale wanted) tells the story of his departure from the VU, albeit in the most obsequious terms. "Hooked up on a fishing line/Looking for the break of day/I've never been here before anyway" establishes time and place of the album from the get go. "I'm sorry but I'm much too young for this/I'll come back again next year." The verse that begins "He came to lend a helping hand" is most certainly about Steve Seznick, the VU's post-Warhol manager who Cale many times in print has referred to as a "snake". After getting all of this out of the way, he continues with the almost light pop-jazz of "Gideon's Bible" (featuring some gorgeous viola work from Cale), the goofy "Adelaide", the lush gospel of "Big White Cloud", the silly but cute "Cleo" and "Please" ("Won't you help me please/I'm growing old/A million years ago/Won't you help me sneeze/I've caught a cold/Another way to go") , the somber country-fied music of which sounds like something from The Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia/1968) album. The proto-Paris 1919 "Charlemagne", and the funky "Bring It On Up", which features some cool honky-tonk fiddle, follow in kind. This is John Cale? Ah yes, and it's all pretty fabulous, and never not entertaining. "Amsterdam" and "Ghost Story" ("Yesterday she bought a new stomach/A Liverpool, made in Detroit") almost go hand in hand with each other, showing some of the dark sing-a-long bar ballad-like weirdness that would crop up again on his three albums for Island (Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen Of Troy).

The album closes with the soulful toe-tapper "Fairweather Friend", the aforementioned Garland Jeffreys tune, barreling itself to a close. The Columbia/Legacy CD re-issue/re-master from 2001 adds two tracks: an alternate take (but to these ears, rather an alternate, possibly rough, mix) of "Fairweather Friend" and the previously unreleased "Wall", 6 minutes and 7 seconds of multi-tracked violas playing western-tinged reels. Certainly a nod by Cale to what he was about to do on Church of Anthrax, but in some ways also a tip of the hat to his former Dream Syndicate bandmate Tony Conrad. Overall, though, the album works well as a whole, with the songs all joining hands, fingers embraced, rather than cheek to cheek and toe to toe.

Vintage Violence is certainly an anomaly, being that there is no violence to speak of on the record itself and the striking multi-layered production sooths rather than grates. The treble-leaning sound overall is slightly brittle and chilly, though with some depth, not unlike an Italian ice, if you will, or a baked Alaska. All the same, however, Vintage Violence is a little heralded classic that seduces the listener into repeated listenings and endless sing- a-longs. That's probably just what Cale wanted anyhow.

John Cale - Vintage Violence (Columbia)
Originally released: 1970
Columbia/Legacy CD re-issue/re-master with bonus tracks released: 2001 (previous versions of the album appeared on CD in 1990 and 1995 without the bonus tracks)
Produced by John Cale and Lewis Merenstein

Side One
1. Hello, There
2. Gideon's Bible
3. Adelaide
4. Big White Cloud
5. Cleo
6. Please

Side Two
1. Charlemagne
2. Bring It On Up
3. Amsterdam
4. Ghost Story
5. Fairweather Friend

Bonus Tracks (CD re-issue only)
1. Fairweather Friend (Previously Unreleased Alternate Version)
2. Wall (Previouly Unreleased)

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