Sunday, 24 February 2013

CD Review: "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood" by John Cale

Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood - the cover
John Cale released his latest CD, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, several months ago (October, 2012), and I’ve finally had the time recently to give it due attention and consideration.

Cale is a Welsh musician, composer, and singer-songwriter, who came to prominence in the mid-60s as a founding member of the seminal rock band The Velvet Underground. In the ‘70s he pursued a triple-career in the music business: behind the scenes, first, as an A&R man for Warner Brothers and Elektra; then, as a record producer for some of the most interesting artists of the period; and, finally, as a solo artist putting out a series of fascinating and diverse albums.

John Cale (not to be confused with J.J. Cale – the laid-back, American singer-songwriter, known as a purveyor of the so-called Tulsa Sound) is a classically-trained musician. His first instrument is viola, but he is also accomplished on guitar, bass, and keyboards. He studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London in the early ‘60s – and got interested in avant-garde music – participating, for example, in a London concert produced by John Cage (Cale played piano).
John Cale in 2012
After moving to New York City in 1963 to pursue this interest in the avant-garde scene, Cale got involved in La Monte Young’s minimalist ensemble, the Dream Syndicate. In early ‘65 he co-founded The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. The drone-laden sound Cale had explored with the Dream Syndicate heavily influenced his work with The Velvets: the songs “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin”, for example. He also championed the use of cacophony: viz. the pounding piano noise in “I’m Waiting for the Man”, and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.  

Lou Reed may have been the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, but it was Cale who had the most to do with the band’s experimental sound. He plays viola, bass and piano on the first two LPs – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), and White Light/White Heat (1968). The relationship between Reed and Cale became fraught with tension - because of creative differences, but also because of a clash of personalities. John Cale left the group in 1968. Some say he was ousted by Reed, who engineered a coup d’état by giving the rest of the band an ultimatum: it’s him or me – choose.
John Cale (top-left) with The Velvet Underground: Lou Reed is front-left; Nico in the centre
Following his split with the Velvets, Cale began working as a record producer. Some of the notable LPs he produced in the early days were the debut albums from both The Stooges (1969), and The Modern Lovers (recorded in ’71 and ’72, but not released until 1976). He also arranged and played nearly all the instruments on Nico’s second album, Marble Index (1969), produced by Frazier Mohawk. Later on he also produced debut LPs for Patti Smith – Horses in 1975 – and Squeeze (1977). An impressive record of introducing new and innovative musicians to the mainstream.

A couple of years later John Cale began putting out solo albums of his own. For Columbia Records, he released Vintage Violence (1970), a rock LP with a set of folk-pop songs (Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward described it memorably as “a Byrds album produced by Phil Spector marinated in burgundy, anise and chili peppers”) and Church of Anthrax (1971), a set of minimalist pieces created in collaboration by Cale and Terry Riley.

The cover of John Cale's 1973 LP, "Paris 1919"

Then, switching to Reprise Records, for whom he worked as an A&R man, he put out The Academy in Peril (1972), a rock-classical fusion of instrumental pieces (two of which feature The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) – dismissed, typically, by Robert Christgau with the pithy statement: “There must be more straightforward ways of imperilling the academy than mock-classical, mock-soundtracks.” This mis-step was followed by the majestic, and more traditional Paris 1919 (1973) – a gentler, baroque-rock sound – which, despite the enigmatic lyrics, was the most accessible of these first four albums, thanks, partly,  to the backing band, which featured three members of Little Feat (Lowell George, Wilton Felder, and Bill Payne).

John Cale during the Island years
After a decade in New York City and southern California, Cale moved back to London in 1973. He quickly fell-in with like-minded rock musicians there, and hit a creative – if not commercial – peak with three albums in the mid-70s for Island Records: Fear (1974), Slow Dazzle (1975), and Helen of Troy (1976). Joining him on stage and in the studio were the likes of Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Chris Spedding, and Phil Collins. After Cale left Island, they put out a best-of album called Guts (1977). And twenty years later came The Island Years (1996) a double-CD containing all three albums, and some out-takes and B-sides. It’s the one to pick up if you want to check out much of the best of his early stuff (and to get it at a reasonable price).
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is John Cale’s fifteenth studio album, released in early October of last year by Double Six Records – as a digital download, a CD, and a 180 gram vinyl LP. It’s his first album since blackAcetate in 2005. The opening track, “I Wanna Talk 2 U”, a collaboration with musician/producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), was released as a single in July 2012. And that was followed by a second single release – “Face to the Sky” – at the end of August.

Cale in a video for the single, "Face to the Sky"
Apart from Danger Mouse’s single contribution to the album, the key figures in this enterprise were John Cale – who produced everything else on the CD, wrote all the songs (apart from the opening track, co-written and produced by Brian Burton), did all the lead vocals, and played keyboards, synths, guitars, viola and bass – and Dustin Boyer, who recorded the album and provided backing vocals and some guitar and synth parts. Also on the album are Michael Jerome Moore (drums), Joey Maramba and Erik Sanko (both on bass), and Cale’s daughter Eden – who does backing vocals on “Hemingway”.

Most of the music for Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood was recorded in Cale’s home studio in Los Angeles in 2011 and 2012. He says that most of the tracks began with him noodling about on the keyboard of an MPC mini-synthesizer. And then they grew steadily by adding layer after layer: the electronic drum parts, for example, were usually overdubbed with real drumming. And then bass guitar, viola and guitar were added. So the foundation of most tracks was a sound, or rhythm – not a finished song. And it shows. This is an album primarily of sonic experiments, instead of a coherent set of songs.

I listened to this album over and over, giving it extra opportunities to impress. It’s a bad sign, usually – indicating a mediocre or dull effort. I wanted to like this album, but repeated listening failed to improve my response to it, failed to reveal any hidden gems.

Part of the problem is the personality and attitude that Cale brings to his music. He has always been an ambivalent character – who can combine in the same album laid-back, pop-oriented songs and in-your-face, aggressive, expressions of fear and paranoia. Oftentimes, he’s perched uneasily in between – and it’s not always easy to discern where he’s coming from. On top of that, his aloof persona and abstruse lyrics create a stance that is difficult to penetrate. If the music is warm and approachable – I’m thinking of an album like Paris 1919 here – he can get away with it. But if the music is cold and hard, like the synthetic and electronic stuff on here, the entire effect is alienating – which is problematic for an artist placed ostensibly in the singer-songwriter tradition. And there’s no getting away from the fact that there is a vitriolic undercurrent to many of these songs.
June 1, 1974: Cale, Eno, Nico and Kevin Ayers
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood begins promisingly. The lively opening track is a collaboration between Cale and Brian Burton (“Danger Mouse”). It sets the mood for the entire enterprise – driven by a rhythmic, electronic groove. Cale says they were aiming at a Motown-feel on this track – hard to sense, really, apart from the catchy chorus and the riff-laden keyboard track. The lyric is an odd mix of trite chorus (“Hey up, wake up; I wanna talk to you”) and obscure verses. In a final verse that might be deemed (unkindly!) as a presentiment of what is to come, Cale sings:

It felt like we were undecided
But there was plenty left to say;
But the combination sounded wrong again. 

The rest of the album is produced and written by Cale. The second track, “Scotland Yard”, has a hard-edged, “industrial” sound – John Cale in his aggressive mode, with a characteristically ominous lyric. Scotland Yard is synonymous with the HQ of the Metropolitan Police Service – the police force that is responsible for most of London. The jist of the lyric seems to concern our innate sense of guilt and shame:

Living, knowing you’ve done nothing wrong;
Living, as if you’ve done something wrong.

Track 3, “Hemingway”, is a song about the famous American author – focused on his trip to Spain during the 1930’s Civil War. Cale thinks that Hemingway was traumatised by the experience (“you saw Guernica fall”) coming away from it with a “thousand-yard stare”. Interesting idea, but not accurate. Hemingway was not in Guernica during the brutal carpet-bombing the city suffered from the Luftwaffe. The track ends with a classic piece of Cale-cacophony – banging down randomly on the keys of an acoustic piano.

“Face to the Sky” is the first, and best, of a long run of tracks that use auto-tune and vocoder – at various levels of intensity – to manipulate John Cale’s vocals. Used sparingly, I can deal with it – but when the effect is laid on thickly (as it is in “December Rains” and “Mothra”) and over half-a-dozen tracks, I just find it very annoying. It’s not as if Cale needs the vocal support. He has a distinctive and expressive baritone voice that is able to convey meaning and emotion. If he thinks that the distorted vocals add interest and contemporary edge to the music, he is, unfortunately, mistaken. And why so much of it?

With “Vampire Café”, the electronic aura of the music finally pays off. This track has a quirky poly-rhythm – featuring Michael Moore on drums and Cale doing a distinctive, lopey bass line. The lyrics are typically impenetrable, but the overall effect is brooding and atmospheric. “Midnight Feast” has a similar feel, but is not as interesting musically.

The end of the album includes two tracks which work better because they don’t try so hard – and are not so cluttered with overdubbed electronic gadgets and synthesizer parts. “Living With You” is a surprisingly direct and simple lyric – so simple, in fact, that it sounds ironic in its triteness:

I’ve got four walls and a roof;
Gonna put the roof on top;
I’ve got glass for the windows,
We’ll have windows to look through.

Has domestic bliss ever sounded as uninvolving as this? And the closing line is a real conundrum: “You wanna be living like me with you.” The inclusion of an acoustic guitar part, here, is a relief, after the interminable electronic gloss of most of the album.

The closing track, “Sandman (Flying Dutchman)” is also a less-cluttered and more direct piece – dominated by guitar, viola overdubs, and lots of overdubbed vocals. It is a lovely, affecting conclusion – out-of-sync really with what has preceded it. Ironically, the track got stalled because Cale couldn’t decide what else to add – and so left it as is.

Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is a classic piece of studio experimentation – focused too much on sonics and production techniques, and forgetting about the need for a good set of songs. The songwriting is aimless and evasive – the vagueness increased often by Cale’s intellectual abstractness. Nothing much is a direct statement, here, or a clear sentiment. Cale tries to convince with vamped-up and energetic electronics. It’s not enough – the end-result is an adventurous and upbeat effort that is surprisingly inert and uninteresting.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Essay: Quarter Days & Cross-Quarter Days

Mayor John Close consults with Wiarton Willie
Another Groundhog Day has come and gone (last Saturday, 2 February). Did you follow the proceedings? I checked it out; but, as usual, I was confused. Is it six more weeks of winter if the little varmint sees his shadow? Or does that indicate an early spring? I forget. And what does it mean if the groundhogs disagree? Because now there are a whole pack of the rodents across this continent busy with this prediction each year. Free-enterprise prognostication, thank you very much!

Our local prognosticator, Wiarton Willie, is based – as his moniker implies – in the small town of Wiarton, located at the southern end of the Bruce Peninsula. Groundhog Day, of course, occurs on the second day of February each year and human beings have been officially consulting Willie on this day for the last 57 years.
Did you know that Wiarton Willie is an albino groundhog!
And the verdict for 2013? Willie did not see his shadow, apparently, so that means – I looked it up – there will be an early spring. How do we know that he didn’t see his shadow, you ask. Well, it’s a bit of a scam. South Bruce Peninsula mayor John Close looked into Willie’s plastic cage (plastic?) to see if he could observe any shadows. Wait, isn’t that supposed to be the groundhog’s job? Why not just ask Willie, Mr. Mayor? Too complicated, it seems. So, Mr. Close gazed long and hard. “It’s an early spring,” he declared, much to the relief of the expectant crowd.

But Willie is just one of the groundhogs busy in North America. What did the rest of his fraternity think? Mixed opinions, I’m afraid. Punxutawney Phil – down in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania – and Winnipeg Willow, in Manitoba, agreed with Willie (early spring); but Shubenacadie Sam, in Nova Scotia, and Quebec’s Fred, it seems, went and saw their shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter.

But why the second day of February each year, anyway? That’s the interesting matter, not the phoney malarkey they do with the groundhogs. Well, it’s all about dividing up the year – part astronomy, and part culture. The year, of course, is divided first into quarters – the seasons. This is fairly straightforward, although it is quite surprising how many people cannot explain the basic astronomy: that the seasons are created by two essential facts – the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the axis of the Earth’s rotation is at a 23.5° tilt. The summer and winter solstices occur at the precise time of the Sun’s transit over the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; and the spring and autumn equinoxes occur at the precise time of the Sun’s transit over the Equator. These four events each year – the solstices and equinoxes – create the so-called quarter days. So far, so good. But the long, three-month gaps between quarter days (especially the winter one) have people often counting the days between each – especially when anticipating the end of the coldest stretch of the year.

And this is where culture is important. If you are anxiously counting the frigid days of winter, you are likely to notice that day upon which you are exactly half way to spring. That’s where the further sub-divisions come in. If you divide each season (91-and-a-bit days) in half, you create four more markers – the so-called cross-quarter days that lie half-way between solstices and equinoxes. Groundhog Day, therefore, is one of four cross-quarter days – lying half-way (about 45 days) between the quarter days of winter solstice and spring equinox – the middle of winter, in other words. Groundhog Day is all about pausing at this bleak mid-point in winter and pondering the possibility of a mild spring.

This dividing up of the year into particular feasts and festivals is a fascinating thing. It makes the year more interesting: a parade of dramatic events and observances. This used to be done more significantly in the past – in our more mytho-poetic past. These days, in our modern, secular, scientific world – dominated by a homogeneous, 24/7 ethos – we have a rather impoverished and drab succession of days that are often difficult to distinguish from each other – beyond the basic commercial division between workdays and weekends. In my youth, I experienced a lot more of these seasonal observances in the Liturgy of the Church – made more interesting because they were movable feasts, whose exact moment was based on the lunar calendar, rather than the Sun’s. And then there were the vestigial celebrations, based on the pre-Christian pagan feast days – many of which were “Christianized” and moved slightly, in order to disguise their pagan origins.

Let’s look at the solstices and equinoxes first (the quarter days) – they are more familiar – and then consider the more obscure, cross-quarter days.

At the winter solstice, the sun is at its lowest altitude above the horizon. This usually occurs on 21 December. In the northern hemisphere, this is the shortest day of the year (the least amount of daylight). The term Yule is a pagan word. In ancient Britain, the Druids cut mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and gave it to each other as a blessing. Mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark and harsh months of winter. The Druids also started the Yule log tradition. The celts believed that the Sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter (now that’s a real “solstice”!); they burned a Yule log to conquer the darkness, to banish evil spirits, and to bring luck for the year ahead. This must be one of the underlying origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Christmas day (the nativity of Jesus) was set on 25 December, instead of 21 December, to differentiate it from the pagan observances.
Summer Solstice at Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain
On the summer solstice, the Sun would be at its highest elevation above the horizon – marking the longest day of the year (the most hours of daylight). The pagan term for midsummer day is Litha. This festival has been of great importance in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The burning of bonfires (representing the incredible heat and light provided by the Sun) is a common ritual of these celebrations. In England, people gather at Stonehenge and wait for the rising sun to emerge above the horizon, aligning with the monument’s Heel Stone and Slaughter Stone. The Christian liturgy puts the birth of John the Baptist close to the summer solstice. He was said to have been born six months before Jesus.

The spring equinox (equinox means literally “equal night” – referring to the equal amounts of daylight and night time on this day) occurs usually on 21 March. The Church put the Feast of the Annuciation of the Blessed Virgin on 25 March – again close to, but not exactly on, the day of actual astronomical significance.

And the autumn (or “fall”) equinox, usually falling on 21 September, marks the other day of the year with equal amounts of daylight and night time. In the Church liturgy, Michaelmas Day was placed on 29 September, close to this equinox. Michaelmas Day honoured the Archangel Michael, who defeated Lucifer in heaven. In the medieval period this was an important day: first, because it was one of the Church’s Days of Obligation (believers were required to attend Mass that day and receive communion); secondly, because it was the end (and beginning) of the husbandman’s year. By this date the harvest would be over, and the bailiff, or reeve, would settle the accounts for the year. A new reeve was usually elected on this day by the manor’s peasants.

Now the quarter days used to be very important in the British tradition. They were the four dates in the calendar when servants were hired and rents were due. They fell on four religious festivals aligned with the solstices and equinoxes: Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer Day (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29) and Christmas (December 25). In England payments on leaseholds, and rents on land, are often still due on the old English quarter days. This made sure that debts and unresolved lawsuits would not linger on for more than three months. Accounts had to be settled and noted in public records. The British tax year still begins on Lady Day – the old Lady Day of 25 March under the Julian calendar (now 6 April in the Gregorian calendar).

Candlemas at Gloucester Cathedral in England

The cross-quarter days are also three months apart and each one lies half-way between the quarter days. February 2, as we’ve seen, is Groundhog Day. But in the Church liturgy, it was celebrated as Candlemas. In pre-Christian times this day was celebrated as the Feast of Lights. The Church transformed it into a day that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of her son, and Jesus’ presentation in the temple at Jerusalem. It became the day when the candles that would be used throughout the coming year would be blessed – hence, the name Candlemas, or the Festival of the Candles. Candles are symbolic of the light that Jesus brought into the darkness of the world. In the pagan world, this day was known as Imbolc. It marked the beginning of spring. Imbolc has been traditionally associated with the beginning of lactation in ewes and the start of the lambing season.

Dancing around the Maypole on May Day

The next cross-quarter day is May Day. The pagan origins of this day are more evident than that of 2 February. In celtic societies this was the pagan festival of Beltane. It marked for them the beginning of summer. This explains, therefore, why the quarter day that follows (the summer solstice) is referred to as Midsummer Day. Common rituals on Beltane included bonfires and fertility rites. Dancing around the Maypole (surely a phallic symbol!) and crowning the Queen of the May were popular activities. In Germany, this festival is known as Walpurgis Night – and the evening activities are dominated by large bonfires. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is celebrated as Mary’s month, beginning on 1 May with a celebration in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mid-way between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox is Lammas (1 August). The name derives from Anglo-Saxon – hlaf-mass, which means “loaf-mass”. Lammas is the festival of the wheat harvest – the first harvest festival of the season. Traditionally, loaves made from the new crop of wheat were brought to Church. They were blessed and then often broken into four pieces and placed in the corners of the barn, to protect the newly-harvested grain from pests and diseases. In parts of England, tenants were required to deliver quantities of fresh wheat to their landlords on or before the first of August. In pre-Christian times this day was marked by the pagan feast of Lughnasadh – also celebrated as a harvest festival.
All Hallows Day in Hungary
The final cross-quarter day of the year is All Hallows Day (1 November). In the pagan tradition, this day was known as Samhain; it marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Cattle were usually brought down from their summer pastures, and most of them were slaughtered, in order to provide food for the long winter months. Bonfires were often lit. The people and their livestock would march between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and bones of slaughtered cattle were thrown into the flames. The souls of the departed were often invited to attend the rituals and honoured places were set up for them at table. These rituals are often likened to the Christian festivals of the dead that take place on this day. The Church instituted this day in order to honour the souls of all the martyrs of the Church and, by extension, all those faithful who had passed on to the next world. All Hallows Day was established by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century and was made a Holy Day of Obligation (unless it fell on a Saturday or Monday).

The feast of Halloween (Hallows Eve) was influenced by harvest festivals and pagan festivals of the dead. It spread throughout the U.S., under the influence of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the nineteenth-century. The Puritans of the north-east U.S. strongly opposed the festival – recognising its pagan influences.

Guy Fawkes Day (“Bonfire Night”) in Britain – despite its political and religious origins – is almost certainly a displaced hold-over of some of the Samhain traditions.

So there you have it. Instead of a year of twelve months and four seasons, we can think of our year as an annual cycle of eight festivals and feasts: four quarter days and four cross-quarter days. And whether you’re a Christian, ‘pagan’, or devout secularist, there must be something in there to honour or celebrate!