Brian Eno and John Cale

Wrong Way Up (Warner Bros 1990)

It took quite a long time for me to appreciate this one. It’s the most middlebrow, mature and accessible release by either gentleman and those three adjectives weren’t exactly the most endearing to me when I initially immersed myself in their respective discographies long ago.  I foolishly looked at the 1990 release date and the garish cover art and never gave Wrong Way Up its due since it sounded a bit slick and lacking in the drifting stasis of 70s Eno or the unsettling, orchestral gravitas of Cale’s early string of solo albums. I wanted them to be obtuse and challenging, but that was my shortcoming because these two brilliant musicians had mellowed and now traveled along a different pathway than those that inspired their colorful origin. This was their attempt at a pop album and I now see the beauty and mastery that lurked behind its superficially slick sheen.

Wrong Way Up opens with the familiar strain of Cale’s viola playing on “Lay My Love” as Eno croons a cosmic yarn about the inherent power of love to transcend time and space. It’s a sentimentally hippie sentiment couched in cyberpunk imagery and its somehow touching despite the revulsion I feel at tying those two disparate genres together in one untidy knot. It’s a perfect synthesis of their musical outlooks as Cale’s viola lends it a stately grace to counteract the clunky electro-pop of Eno. It’s kind of like the pop songs on Another Green World with an orchestral bent. That’s a quite a combo in my book.

“One Word” was the commercially released single from Wrong Way Up and there is no way in hell that it ever had a chance at the top 40. My snarky cynicism isn’t due to poor quality control, but because it is way too bright, witty and impressionistic to ever capture the imagination of the dullards of our imperfect universe. This song is like a microcosm of the album as the two men trade stanzas establishing competing viewpoints as one argues for the power of words to derail any sense of camaraderie in this combative world while the other paints an idealistic picture of a world where words have the power to unite us all under the same banner. For some reason, this setting for this existential debate skips from the Louvre to Cologne and drops allusions to oil paintings by Welsh painter Augustus John, but these idiosyncrasies are what make this such a lovably unlikely stab at commercialism. It’s just another reason why I believe Wrong Way Up belongs in the same discussion as Cale and Eno’s accepted classics when you take a long listen to it and pay attention to the little eccentricities that define it.

“Empty Frame” is a head scratcher in the best possible way as Eno tries his hand at melding his 70s pop aesthetic to 50s pop music as the song rises and falls on a wave of “whoa, whoa whoas” like he’s aiming for some stoned, avant-garde take on “Runaround Sue.”  It sounds so uplifting, but listen closely and the song is really about a crew of unwitting sailors headed towards their demise by a clueless captain as they are slowly driven insane looking for signs of safety and survival. It’s a saccharine sweet tune laced with a tale full of arsenic. Again, these contradictions and literary flourishes are the lifeblood of Wrong Way Up and explain why a cursory listen is destined to obscure the brilliance that lies under its surface.

What would an album full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies be without a oddball honky-tonk number by John Cale?  “Crime in the Desert” tackles familiar country and western themes of women in love with broken hearted souls, tumbling dice and murder in the murky moonlight. However, Cale’s rollicking piano playing is juxtaposed over Eno’s enthusiastic bleeps and it somehow takes on a post-modern flair of its very own. It’s a bizarre, yet infectious twist on Americana that tweaks familiar themes and makes it into something wholly unique that could only be created by these two weathered crackpots.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Just because it is rarely mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Paris 1919 or Here Come the Warm Jets doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pour yourself a glass of wine and get very familiar with Wrong Way Up. It is the most poetic and literary effort by both men and boasts some of their best lyrical work. Yes, the production kind of mucks things up a bit when you approach it as a backseat listener, but Wrong Way Up is the sound of two geniuses navigating their way through their middle ages and pondering love, life and mortality in their own peculiar way.

Alex Chilton

Like Flies on Sherbert (Peabody 1979)

What happens when a pop genius goes on a bender and tries to give a middle finger to his record label?  The answer is found on Like Flies on Sherbert. If you are looking for utter dourness of Sister Lovers, the punchy pop of the Box Tops or the power pop of Big Star’s most accessible tunes, you will be sorely disappointed. It is a drunk and drugged ode to the origins of rock and roll that is evenly split between moments of utter brilliance and sloppy bar band chaos. However, I even like the unrehearsed and thoroughly fucked versions of classics as well as sabotaged originals that are deformed into some base form that sound like little else I’ve heard.

Somehow my teenaged self heard a radio show on Brave New waves where Yo La Tengo played their favorite songs for a bit. This was in the early 90s before I even knew about Big Star or the “The Letter” was a byproduct of Alex Chilton. They played the title track and it was an epiphany. There is so much going on in this song. It is a combination of apathy and passion. He attempts to ruin it with high-pitched vocals and intoxicated piano chords, poorly placed chourses and synthesizer mayhem, but I swear it is one of the most beautiful things thine ears have had the pleasure of hearing. Chaos suited him and his increasingly mannered follow-ups to Like Flies on Sherbert suggest that he should despise the world more often.

“I’ve had It” reminds me of John Cale circa Paris 1919 after too many whiskeys and a stick removed from his anus. It has the grandiose chorus and piano chords of Cale’s prime period, but Chilton fucks it all up in the right ways. it lacks in the intricacy and orchestration of Cale’s work, it makes up for in a shaggy dog charm that Cale would probably revile with all of his heart.

To be honest, some of the album misses the mark and descends into a charmless middle finger, but I wish there were more albums that could hold a candle to Chilton’s mangling of R&B, soul, 50s and 60s rock and roll. I find it hard to believe that this was intended as a throwaway since it brings out previously unseen qualities in his work. Sadly, they were never seen again. If anyone can suggest a great 1980-2008 Chilton, please email us at because we would love to hear it.

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.

I’ve been pondering the posting of lists. This will be the first in a series of thematic collections relating to floats my boat. Today’s list was inspired by a humid drive into the barren heart of Delaware County where Peter Jefferies’ depressing Electricity album placed me in one of those pensive moods that went perfectly with the blur of chain restaurants dominating my horizons. Therefore, this led to this list of songs that always make me feel like a maudlin chump. Sorry that these are individual tracks, but I broke it up so you may pick and choose. There will probably be a sequel since I gave up at twenty.

1. Skip Spence-“Broken Heart” from the Oar LP

-he sounds broken down before his life even began. There are many worthy choices on this album, but this captures the weight of love gone wrong.

2. Beck-“Lost Cause” from the Sea Change Lp

-he has devoted so much time to being the most wiggity-wack Scientologist in the club that you forget how great he can be without the fixins’. A vivid snapshot of regret, lost friendships and the worry that goes along with new beginnings.

3. Bread-“Look What You’ve Done” from the On the Waters LP

-a soft-rock classic where the protagonist is pitiful and pissed at the same time. Who knew Bread had such issues with passive aggressive behavior?

4. Camper Van Beethoven-“All Her Favorite Fruit” from Key Lime Pie LP

-domesticity gone awry.

5. Codeine-“3 Angels” from the Frigid Stars LP

-I could probably pick any of their songs, but this one crushes you more than the others.

6. Galaxie 500-When Will You Come Home” from Peel Sessions

An old chestnut that deals with those times you miss the company of other humans.

7. Gary Stewart-“She’s Acting Single(I’m Drinking Doubles) from The Essential Gary Stewart

-Oh Gary, lemme give you a big old hug. Nevermind, let’s finish the bottle.

8. Gene Clark-“Life’s Greatest Fool” from the No Other Lp

-an exploration of powerlessness, then hope. Actually, this is kind of uplifting in its own way.

9. Go-Betweens-“Dive For Your Memory” from 16 lovers Lane LP

-A man willing to do anything to regain the past. Kind of romantic, but tragic.

10. Graham Nash-“Military Madness” from the Songs For Beginners LP

-Sad only because its Vietnam era warnings seem relevant again.

11. The Jayhawks-“Take Me With You When You Go” from Hollywood Town Hall

-I always imagined this to be about Mark Olson’s worries about his wife’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

12. Kristin Hersh-“Beestung” from Hips and Makers Lp

-I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, but it seems to deal with her struggles with mental illness and her pleas for a lover to assist her.

13. Lisa Gerrard-“Sanvean” from Live in Dusseldorf bootleg.

-I hope these are the sounds I hear as my life enters its last minutes.

14. The Magick Heads-“Before We Go Under” from Before We Go Under Lp

-A song about drowning from a side project of Robert Scott of The Bats.

15. Michael Hurley-“Sweedeedee” from Armchair Boogie(the best album ever made)

-another tale of lost love and the attempts to regain it.

16. Mickey Newbury-“The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” from ‘Frisco Mabel Joy

-a man discovers that travel and booze won’t solve his problems. Go figure.

17. Peter Jefferies-“Scattered Logic” from the Electricity lp

– my favorite song at the moment. A heart-wrenching three minutes.

18. John Cale-“I Keep a Close Watch on My Heart at Night” from Music for a New Society

-somebody not only broke this dude’s heart, but squashed it into a pulp.

19. Peter Hammill-“Been Alone So Long” from the Nadir’s Big Chance Lp

-This is a close second to the John Cale song in terms of crushing hopelessness. A song about a man who has been isolated so long that he’s forgotten how to relate to humanity.

20. Marc Ribot-“Saints” from the Saints Lp

-let’s end on a wordless note. His cover of Albert Ayler’s “Saints” is a dark, moody end to this self-indulgence.