Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Obscure Albums That You Should Hear Before You Die: Part 1

As one of the few surviving people of the Digital Apocalypse over the past 15 years, I still buy albums on CD. I have my reasons for this... Reasons that I could elaborate in blog-length form, but I will currently save for another time.
     What this old-fashioned habit of mine does afford me is the revered importance of the music album as a whole. Currently, you can go to iTunes and buy whatever songs like off an album and be done with it and move on to the next one. The problem with this mindset is that you, as the listener, miss out on songs that didn't immediately catch your attention and never truly got a chance to appreciate. I mean really, should we as a the listener be simply content to appreciate only the songs that are immediately catchy to us? For me, some of my favorite albums were ones I had work at liking. I mean seriously, as listeners, we should put a little effort into it!
     Now, I could go on at even further length about this... But that's not the point of this blog update. 
     I was once asked by my friend, (and drummer in my band), to make a list of 5 important albums for him to listen to - specifically ones that he'd never heard or possibly never knew existed. And... as a bonafide music-geek, I had quite the time compiling that short list for him...
     Coincidentally, one of those albums is the one that I'm going to dissect in this, the first of a series of blogs covering obscure albums that you, the mass public should hear..... At least once... And, (whether you enjoy it or not), should appreciate for their impact on the current music you probably listen to....
      So, without further ado...

Artist:  John Cale 
Album:  Fear
Year:  1974
   Hopefully, you have a vague idea of who John Cale is. If not, we'll make this quick: 
Cale was the counterpart to Lou Reed in the infamous Velvet Underground, until leaving the group and pursuing his own solo career, etc... Much like Lou Reed eventually did, as well. 
 Classically trained and proficient on the viola and piano, Cale brought an avant-garde classicism to the Velvet Undergound's first two albums and these aspects also came into play with his solo albums... 
       Alright, enough history... 

Side A
This album starts off with the track "Fear is a Man's Friend"... What seems to be a simplistic piano-based song, inevitably ends in a dissonant climax with Cale yelling the song's title repeatedly. The guitars in this song are fairly clean-sounding, with little distortion, while the bass guitar has a life of its own, rather becoming an integral part of the sonic framework instead of simply "keeping the beat."
     As an opener, this song certainly shows an example of proto-punk tendencies... A good 3 years before "punk" truly existed.....(It should be noted that Cale produced the Stooges' debut album and Patti Smith's "Horses"... So, in my humble opinion, he's a bit of a Godfather of Punk Music)...
     The ending cacophony of the first track suddenly gives way to it's polar opposite in the form of "Buffalo Ballet", a song that shows off the classical beauty of Cale's songwriting, comprised of piano, acoustic guitar, and lush orchestration.
      The rest of side A continues with the quirky "Barracuda", which brings back the guitar work and eventually fades out what could be considered a bit of viola solo - then, switching back to piano-based approach with "Emily." This song seems float along, with a timing that is not dissimilar to Brian Eno's "Deep Blue Day"... Not surprising, since Brian Eno played synthesizer and fellow Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera played on this album, as well.
Side B
      The second half of this album holds what could be considered the center-piece of this album - the song "Gun." This song certainly retains some aspects of Cale's traits that were evident in the Velvet Underground, (perhaps more specifically, the Underground's "White Light/White Heat"). We have a song that's 8 minutes long, partially droning in parts, and some cool guitar riffs throughout. It's vaguely bluesy... But what is really great about this song is the weird combination solo of an electric guitar being fed through a synthesizer being played by Eno in real-time. Basically a two-person synth/guitar solo happening simultaneously.. It sounds perfectly weird, awesome, and enlightening that there were people doing crazy stuff like this 40+ years ago.
      This is followed by the strange "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" which wouldn't sound out of place on a Queen album like "A Night At the Opera", with its dips into cabaret such as "Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon", albeit that Cale and his band sound more relaxed and less dainty.
      "You Know More Than I Know" is back to an almost classicist-pop style, which has intermittently been Cale's main tactic with song-writing - basically a baroque-pop feel. Yet another example of subdued beauty, much like side A's "Buffalo Ballet."
     The album closes with "Momamma Scuba" which is a prime example of soulful rock and roll - filtered through an art-rock sound. It's strange, unsettling, and not an expected closer for an album. But what this final song accomplishes is the ability to make the listener wish there was more. It almost feels unfinished as the the final song fades. But it indeed leaves the listener feeling a bit uneasy, which is a not uncommon tactic with Cale's musical output over the years.

   The good news is that Cale went on to do a string of critically acclaimed albums in the rest of the 70's. My personal suggestions for further listening are: "Slow Dazzle", "Helen of Troy" and ...(if you can find it or manage to get your hands on it)... "Sabotage/Live" recorded at CBGB's in 1979.
     One last particular that I should mention, is that when listening to this album - listen for the production style. These songs cover the range from simplistic rock band set-up to lush beautiful orchestration. Yet, each song exhibits a lot of space in the recording. In the first track, for instance, you can plainly pick out each individual instrument in the mix. And in the more complex songs, despite their lushness, you can still pick out individual instruments and parts. No ginormous Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" business here... Just a carefully produced and mixed album that still sounds amazing and relevant. So, please... Listen to this album with headphones... And enjoy... Or appreciate...

   Till next time, take it easy!

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