Friday, June 29, 2007
John Cale - Circus Live (2007)
You might have gotten tired about hearing about John Cale after my review of his live show, but his new live album seems to stand out to me and really is pretty good. And as word has been sparse about it on this side of the ocean (since it hasn't yet been released in North America as far as I know), I figure I'll spread the word. It's actually a bit odd that John Cale doesn't get much respect in America. His input into The Velvet Underground is often overlooked in favor of Lou Reed, who may be cool, but isn't actually as cool or straight-up creative as John Cale. What can Lou Reed do? Play a mean guitar and sing like a rock star. John Cale, though, can play viola, keyboard, bass, guitar, probably anything, and sing like an angry punk or a melodic troubadour. Cale has worked with Brian Eno several times (such as the famous June 1, 1974 concert with Nico and Kevin Ayers, Cale's mid-70s Island albums, which featured Eno's synth all over them, and Wrong Way Up, a collaboration between the two), but Cale is an influential figure himself. As I mentioned in my review of the concert of his I saw, he arranged, produced, and played most of the instruments on most of Nico's albums, produced Squeeze's first album, the Modern Lovers' only album, the Stooges' first album, Patti Smith's first album (Horses), and Siouxsie & the Banshee's last album. Bauhaus loved to cover his obscurity "Rosegarden Funeral of Sores", Billy Bragg does "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend", David J (bassist of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets) does "Fear", "Antarctica Starts Here", and "Ship of Fools", Siouxsie & the Banshees do "Gun", and The Teardrop Explodes do "I'm Not the Loving Kind" (as I've mentioned before). Put simply, Cale rules.
I apologize right now for how ridiculously long this review is. It's a long album, after all.
Artist: John Cale
Album: Circus Live
Release Date: 19 February 2007
01. Venus in Furs [originally performed by The Velvet Underground]
02. Save Us
03. Helen of Troy
05. Buffalo Ballet
06. Femme Fatale [originally performed by The Velvet Underground] → Rosegarden Funeral of Sores
08. Outta the Bag
09. Set Me Free
10. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
11. Look Horizon
13. Dirty Ass Rock 'n' Roll
01. Walkin' the Dog [Rufus Thomas Jr. cover]
03. Hanky Panky Nohow
04. Pablo Picasso [Modern Lovers cover] → Mary Lou
05. Drone – Into Amsterdam Suite
07. Style It Takes
08. Heartbreak Hotel [Elvis Presley cover]
09. Mercenaries (Ready for War)
10. Outro Drone
1. Model Beirut Recital [partial]
2. Sold Motel [partial]
4. Reading My Mind [partial]
5. Heartbreak Hotel [Elvis Presley cover]
1. Dancing Undercover
2. You Know More Than I Know
3. Gravel Drive
5. Ghost Story
1. Jumbo in the Modern World [promo video]
2. Gravel Drive (Blathamix) [audio track]
3. Big White Cloud (2007 Version) [audio track]
The songs here were recorded by Cale and his live band during his 2004 and 2006 European tours, and it's interesting to compare the song selection with what I saw on his 2007 European tour. To be honest, all the songs come from a slightly bigger collection of songs that he liked to play these days. Looking at other setlists, you can clearly see he has a certain number of songs that form his basic repertoire and he picks a good count to do at any given moment. I'll mostly discuss what I think sounds particularly interesting here and maybe compare a little with the performance I saw.
The album opens with The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs", which was written by Lou Reed but is mostly memorable for Cale's thick droning viola. The performance here is faithful to the recording, and it works well. Cale then proceeds to do "Save Us" and "Helen of Troy" from his Island years and then "Woman" from his latest album, 2005's Black Acetate. This sort of mix of old and new forms the basis of this album. "Helen of Troy" rocks pretty hard, even more so than the recorded version, and now that I've heard the live version several times, I prefer it to the original version. The female spoken parts in the original kind of annoy me now, and although I like the horn part in the recording, the riff works just fine on an effects-laden live guitar, too.
"Buffalo Ballet" is done quite faithfully and shows the sweeter, more melodic and acoustic side of Cale that shows up now and then. Later in the album, Cale does similarly low-key versions of "Set Me Free" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". All three are beautifully done and contrast well with the more rocking material. The concert I saw had a very large number of these types of songs, which I thought worked really well.
The first really interesting song is the medley of the Lou Reed-penned "Femme Fatale" (originally sung on the first Velvet Underground record by Nico) with Cale's obscure b-side "Rosegarden Funeral of Sores", a song perhaps better known a staple from Bauhaus' live performances. The medley skillfully interweaves the two songs, mostly playing around with the main riff of "Rosegarden" while alternating verses from both songs and changing the root of the riff as necessary for "Femme Fatale".
The newer song "Hush" doesn't seem to go anywhere and is the first weaker track. If you listen to the album so that there are gaps between each song, you can clearly hear the fade-out of the song (as it must have kept on going), but without the gap, it sounds like the band just suddenly shifts into the recent single "Outta the Bag", which is quite an improvement. They may have done it that way in concert, but depending on your playback system, the production either sounds kind of tellingly bad or really good. "Outta the Bag" has some weird sampled effects, but the song sounds rather good, and I love the wordless vocalizations over the ending jam, presumably done by Cale's backing musicians.
"Magritte" is a fairly good song introduced as being "about [his] favorite painter", which in itself is pretty cool, but the song is also one of the few Cale ever does on viola. It is followed by the thoroughly rocking "Dirty Ass Rock 'n' Roll", which is perhaps even better than the original. The piano sound and the guitar workouts work so well. The song goes on for a bit while everyone jams their heart out.
The second disc features more radical reworkings of classic Cale songs. "Walkin' the Dog" is an old standard by Rufus Thomas Jr. that a lot of people like to cover for reasons I fail to understand; I don't think the song is all that great, but I guess it's kind of fun, and Cale does a fairly good job with it. (He had previously released a version of the song on his first live album, Sabotage/Live in 1979.)
"Gun", which in the studio was a long, seriously rocking song with a two-man solo featuring Brian Eno throwing his effects board on the guitar solo, is here presented as an even longer piece, more atmospheric and slow. Considering the nature of the song, I think that's a poor choice as it drags too much and gets a bit boring. It's not too bad, though, and the best part of the rendition is that it seamlessly transitions into Cale's classic "Hanky Panky Nohow". I didn't even notice the seque the first time I listened until Cale started singing the chorus. The version here is very minimalist, but for the song it works well.
The "Pablo Picasso" → "Mary Lou" medley is also pretty good, albeit maybe a little indulgent in the extended jam that links the songs, but this is a rock band, after all. The medley rocks pretty hard, and it feels like the musicians are really into the songs. "Pablo Picasso" seems to be one of Cale's favorite songs to cover, which is interesting considering that it's a Modern Lovers song, and he produced the album the original recording is found on. I can't help but like Cale's sneering rendition of the repeated line, "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole". The lyrics aren't really amazing, but the point that fame can lead people to overlook character flaws still comes through. This is the last song before the "Amsterdam Suite", and the main "set" appropriately ends with Cale repeatedly singing "goodnight" throughout the outro of "Mary Lou".
The so-called "Amsterdam Suite" is basically a fragment of a spacey acoustic set Cale did with a few different musicians in Amsterdam in 2004. (A video of the whole concert can be found here. [Edit 2014.06.16: Not anymore, apparently.]) When I first saw the tracklist, I hoped that the "song" "Drone – Into Amsterdam Suite" implied that Cale would do a version of his old song "Amsterdam", but such is not the case. It's just a long drone, just like the "Outro Drone". These two tracks are largely worthless (except to prove that "outro" is a word) but they do mimic the intro and outro of the concert I witnessed.
"Zen" goes by slowly and has a pretty, shimmering keyboard throughout. I think this song and Cale's homeland inspired the name of his biography, What's Welsh for Zen?, which is a great title. "Style It Takes" is from Cale's 1990 collaboration with Lou Reed, Songs for Drella, which was a song cycle dedicated to Andy Warhol, the "producer" of the first Velvets album. This particular song is a bit humorous and self-referential, and it sounds great due to some great keyboard, sound effects, and banjo.
"Heartbreak Hotel", the Presley standard, is done as a slow, atmospheric piece, devoid of the rocking guitars of Cale's normal version, although the version he played at the concert I saw was noticeably different from either version. This version is totally minimalist and barely holds together. It's cool that Cale is experimenting around, as it works okay here, but when I couldn't even make out a single word he sang in his pitch-shifted version at the concert I saw, I count that as a bit of a drawback.
"Mercenaries" largely has the same story as "Gun" or "Heartbreak Hotel", which can be seen as unfortunate or interesting. I've never heard the original version, because the studio recording was only released on a vinyl single and never reissued anywhere (since the master was lost), and the other common version is the live take on Cale's first live album, Sabotage/Live, which I cannot find a copy of anywhere. My understanding is that the original rocks out, with is quite contrary to this version. It's so slow and drawn out, which could be cool, but it feels like this song could have benefited from a bit more of something. [Edit 2014.06.16: I have since heard both of these earlier versions, and indeed, they are powerful rockers.]
So this is a long review. Anyhow, the whole thing comes with a DVD, too, which has some interesting material on it. The rehearsal features a bunch of songs that don't appear on the CDs, several of which were performed at the concert I saw. (You can even see the drummer playing his box as I mentioned in my live review! [Edit 2019.01.07: That instrument is called a cajón.]) Since these are rehearsals, a few of the songs break down or are edited, but you do get to see several full performances. There's also the requisite banter, but the best is when Cale dons his old ski mask as he used to in concert (and as seen on the cover of the Guts compilation.)
The electric rehearsal tracks include another protracted version of "Heartbreak Hotel" in yet another arrangement. This version rocks a bit harder but is still fairly abstract. The version of "Gun" is here done closer to the rocking original version, but they somehow play the song in three minutes instead of eight. The acoustic rehearsals include some solid renditions of Cale classics like "Dancing Undercover", "You Know More Than I Know", and "Ghost Story", which is a real treat. The "Jumbo in the Modern World" video is a CG-heavy affair featuring weird creatures that consume all beauty in the world and then each other, ending in the last surviving member vomiting up the entire world.
The two audio tracks are fairly interesting. "Outta the Bag (Blathamix)" isn't really very great, but I haven't actually heard the normal version, so I don't know how much is the song versus the mix. I suspect it's the mix that fails, as it's overly electronics-laden and it doesn't go anywhere. I accidentally listened to it once while fast-forwarding my DVD at 1.5 speed, and it sounds noticeably better and doesn't drag as much. "Big White Cloud (2007 Version)" is simply an update of the original, with a bigger atmospheric background. It isn't particularly revelatory, but it's certainly not bad.
The album was culled from Cale's 2004 and 2006 tours, but like the show I saw in 2007, Cale plays a wide array of material. He's got old Velvet Underground material, songs from his earliest albums, several songs from his famed Island years, and several songs from his last few albums. The mix is interesting and flows fairly well, and he re-arranges a lot of his songs, for better or worse. Perhaps even more than the concert I saw, the record relies on a bit more recent material than older, which makes sense as Cale does have older live albums with some of the same material, and he's only really re-arranged a limited number of his songs so many times. Still, it's a good listen, but I should warn that I adore Cale's 70s albums but know little about anything thereafter (and I love the Velvet Underground), so many of these songs were completely new to me. He's backed by a solid band, and he can rock out on request.
The album's actually a fair introduction to the man and his music, and it's a great album for a longtime fan. I only wish that his new arrangements of old songs were less dependent on just being long, droning space-versions. I know Cale loves his ambience and drones, but I think he could do some really more interesting things. Or just provide more variety. All the medleys, be they done that way live or just skillfully mixed in the album production, work really well. The two medleys that were clearly done live (that is, "Femme Fatale" → "Rosegarden Funeral of Sores" and "Pablo Picasso" → "Mary Lou"; I'm not entirely confident about the "Hush" → "Outta the Bag" or the "Gun" → "Hanky Panky Nohow" segues... they could have been done live or via post-production) are two of the best tracks on the album, and both were fairly cleverly arranged. Do note that slower songs are not necessarily bad: as I said before, "Buffalo Ballet" and "Style It Takes" (among others) succeed well with the more thoughtful approach.
The DVD is also makes for a fun little viewing. It isn't totally enlightening or anything, but you get to see the band having fun and playing parts of songs you don't hear on the CDs. Not fantastic, but it's there and it's not bad. The video is worth a watch, and the audio tracks are worth a listen. Unlike the CDs, which I think merit repeated listenings, the DVD probably has a more limited appeal.
Whole package: B
Full "Amsterdam Suite" performance as seen here [Edit 2014.06.16: Sorry, no longer available.]: B-