Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 21, 2010: Psychobabble recommends John Cale’s ‘Fear’

After Lou Reed booted John Cale from The Velvet Underground in 1968, Cale wasted little time getting on with his work, producing Nico’s terrifying The Marble Index and The Stooges’ classic debut the following year. In 1970 he recorded his first solo album, a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley heavy on extended, instrumental, jazz-like workouts. Church of Anthrax would not be issued until 1971, a year after Cale released Vintage Violence, a solo debut dominated by relatively straight-forward singer-songwriter material influenced by The Band. These two records—both interesting yet flawed—indicated that Cale’s solo career would take a mercurial path, but neither hinted at the confidence and variety he’d achieve on 1974’s Fear. Strong in voice and composition on each of the album’s nine tracks, Cale produced an album that deserves classic status.

The record commences its seduction with “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, which starts off as a Bowie-esque, piano-based pop song before climaxing with frenzied bass noise and paranoid primal shrieks. It’s exhilarating, scary stuff and a sharp contrast to the deliberate, choral beauty of “Buffalo Ballet”, which follows. A reggae-tinged rhythm lays the groundwork of “Barracuda”, but Cale provides the hooks with his mumbled melody, circusy organ fills, and screechy viola solo. “Emily” is an expansive, gorgeous ballad, and —like “Buffalo Ballet”, “Barracuda”, and the soulful “You Know More Than I Know”— makes very tasteful use of female backing singers (a real rarity in the mid-‘70s!). “Ships of Fools” is woozy and romantic with a sparkling arrangement that conceals a creepily Gothic lyric. Rolling along on a strolling rhythm, “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is as funny as it sounds. Critics tend to compare this number to The Beach Boys, although to my ears, it sounds more like a lift of Van Morrison’s “Straight to Your Heart (Like a Cannonball)”. These are all superb tracks, but the album’s masterpiece is the eight-minute stomp “Gun”, a sweaty-palmed tale of a criminal on the run (later covered to great effect by Siouxsie and the Banshees). Lou Reed may have gotten all the press with his solo career, but I’ve never heard him do anything as accomplished as Fear post-Velvets.
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