John Cale

Music For a New Society (Rhino 1982)

This an album for days when you just feel unable to get out of bed and life has yanked your hair as a prelude to kneeing you in the balls. Music For a New Society is John Cale’s last great album before a parade of underwhelming efforts. Although his live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, is one of his best, everything after this paled in comparison to the brilliance and creativity of his 70s works. Of all the members of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is the one who is responsible for the most challenging and interesting work after their slow, pathetic dissolution. To hell with Metal Machine Music, Cale’s Paris 1919, Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Academy in Peril, Helen of Troy and Music For a New Society are sometimes nasty and claustrophobic and sometimes lush and sentimental, but always worth your full attention. There is no excusing such dreck as Artificial Intelligence and Caribbean Sunset, but Cale’s decade of genius is enough to last me for an eternity.

Enough proselytising, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Music For a new Society is Cale’s most sparse and single-minded record as it is just Cale’s voice, piano, minimal percussion, eerie electronics and the occasional bagpipe solo. “I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine” is one of the most heartwrenching portraits of a man who has been burned too many times. He captures the essence of betrayal and its subsequent damning effects on the one who has been betrayed. It is a dark look at love and how it can harden the heart.

Never win and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between you and me

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I still hear your voice at night
When I turn out the light
And try to settle down
But there’s nothing much I can do
Because I can’t live without you
Any way at all

I don’t know why this song haunts me so. I have a healthy, optimistic view of love and its potential to cast life in a new light, but we’ve all been to that desperate place described in this song.

An even more disturbing view of love, obsession and hard feeling is “If You Were Still Around.” It is a bit of a hateful ditty about what he would do to those who have done him wrong. There is a lot of violence in his intentions and probably much more lurking in the subtext of this one. Actually, it’s pretty much in plain view as Cale openly lobbies for some sort of psychic or emotional cannibalism.

If you were still around
I’d hold you
I’d hold you
I’d shake you by the knees
Blow hard in both ears
If you were still around

You could write like a panther
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swung you to your doom
To your doom

If you were still around
I’d tear unto your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers

Shreds of dread
If you were still around
I’d turn you facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Chew the back of your head
‘Til you opened your mouth
To this life

It starts off as a tender song about longing and regret, but builds into something ugly. In fact, it’s a pretty primal song and reveals a man who wants to punish a lover who revealed herself to be a traitor to his love and friendship. The rest of the album isn’t quite so morbid and grisly, but it is still pretty damn depressing. Music For a New Society may be one of my favorite albums, but it isn’t one that I dust off often because it’s so full of bad juju.


August 22, 2008


Ripple (Tomlab 2003)

Let’s get all of my overused adjectives out of the way before discussing Fonica’s Ripple LP. It is pastoral, soothing, mellow, gorgeous, ethereal, otherwordly among other suitable ways to describe the music of this Japanese duo. I’m being a bit of a wiseass about adjectives because it seems like all of my favorite albums attract such descriptions. Fonica puts me in that that blissful place that Stars of the Lid, Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star, Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand and William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops never fail to inspire. Never heard of the band in my life, but picked it up for two bucks in a local budget bin due to the fact that it was released by the excellent German label, Tomlab. It seems as if many folks sympathetic to the sound of drones and whirrs haven’t yet encountered what may be one of the unsung classics of the genre. That’s a shame since Ripple is a special album that sounds like its contemporaries, but repeated listens reveal layers upon layers of intricacy that push it beyond the reach of its peers.

I believe Fonica is no more, but Keiichi Sugimoto continues to mine similar veins with his work as Fourcolor, Minamo and Filfla. I like the Fourcolor and Minamo albums quite a bit and they are worth investigating, but his work on Ripple has this childlike quality to it. Each song is simplistic, repetitive lullaby that slowly reveals more elements until you are entranced by each creation. The title of this album is apt because each instrument, drone and muffled beat does indeed ripple outward in minsicule gestures and waves. On my most hectic, hair-pulling days, I can always count on Ripple to loosen the knots and focus the mind on better places and states of mind. I hope it can do the same for your troubled soul.