If 2012 has taught us anything, it’s that artists in their 60s and 70s are capable of making some of the most vital music of their careers. Just give a listen to the latest by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bettye LaVette, Tom Waits or Neil Young. Well, add John Cale to that list. At age 70, the former Velvet Underground-er is still challenging himself and his fans musically.
Actually, with John Cale, his interest in pushing musical boundaries should come as no surprise. Even before he helped form Velvet Underground with John Cale back in 1965, he was making some pretty far out music with the likes of La Monte Young and Tony Conrad and after his stint with the Velvets he continued on his own unique course with records like The Academy of Peril and Paris 1919. Of course Cale is also known for his ground-breaking production work, having produced The Stooges, Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers. You can find out more about those projects here. He is also one of rock’s greatest interpreters…his versions of Heartbreak Hotel, Pablo Picasso and Hallelujah are arguably definitive.
Cale’s previous studio album was 2005’s blackAcetate and Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood pretty much picks up where that one left off. Cale is still fascinated by electronic beats and synths, but not at the expense of good songwriting and structure.
On opening track I Wanna Talk 2 U, Cale collaborates with the seemingly omnipresent Danger Mouse who contributes bass, synths and drum programming along with production work. The song itself is excellent with a strong vocal turn from Cale. Along with the electronica and synths, Cale adds some good old-fashioned wah wah guitar to the mix, courtesy of guitarist Dustin Boyer.
Scotland Yard is next and it immediately reminds me of Bowie’s Fashion. In fact, most of the album makes me think this might be the kind of music Bowie could be making right now if he hadn’t retired. Cale’s ominous voice sets the tone here along with a squalling electric guitar and some 80s-style synths. It’s one of the high points of the album.
As is Hemingway, a tribute to the author featuring Cale’s daughter Eden on atmospheric backing vocals. “Drowning in pina coladas, as the bulls prowl round the ring”, Cale sings, addressing the great man. The Bowie vibe is still present as well.
The energy level dips a bit during the second half of the album, especially when Cale experiments with auto-tuning his voice on December Rains and Mothra. Although he used the effect sparingly, it’s still an unneeded distraction and only serves to create emotional distance between the singer and the listener. Besides, John Cale has one of the great voices in rock…let’s hear it!
We do on the title track. In fact, his vocal contains a hint of the unbridled madness found in some of his best 70s recordings. He also breaks out his electric viola on Vampire Café and Living With You for some good old VU-style drones.
Yes, John Cale is still at it, making music that challenges himself and us.
Click here to listen to Scotland Yard from Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood: