Release Date: Jan 22, 2016
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
For whatever reason, John Cale’s contribution to the more outré sounds of the first two Velvet Underground albums has been largely overshadowed by his late bandmate’s outsized persona and cultural legacy. Perhaps it’s his more mercurial quality that prevents him from quick categorization, as is the case with Lou Reed. Having originated in the burgeoning school of minimalist modern composers like John Cage, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Cale brought a decidedly different approach to the Velvets gritty proto-punk.
John Cale had been careening through nearly a decade of chaotic and paranoid rock music when he took an abrupt stylistic shift with 1982's Music for a New Society, a set of stark and minimal melodies performed with a quiet touch that made the occasional bursts of volume all the more violent, accompanying lyrics that dealt with a variety of damaged lives. It was one of Cale's best and most powerful works, and more than 30 years later, Cale has revisited the songs with fresh creative eyes on the album M:FANS. Cale's new interpretations are significantly more aggressive than the originals, and are based largely in electronic textures (the new arrangements of "[I Keep A] Close Watch" and "Thoughtless Kind" could pass for a gloomy variant on contemporary R&B, and "Chinese Envoy" now has a cool, pop-wise sheen), though they trade nearly as strongly in dynamics as the original performances.
John Cale stays on-trend in 2016 by upcycling his 1982 album Music For A New Society into M:FANS. Immediately noticeable as a departure from the original (apart from the titular embrace of the acronym) is the dark thickness of the production; the lowest of low end that punctuates If You Were Still Around would have shrugged the needle from the groove 34 years ago. The original record’s improvisational nature is still here but hidden, its minimalist touches are scant.
What's left for John Cale? The guy has spent decades making extraordinary avant-garde, classically-inspired rock records in New York and helped to reinvent rock music as part of The Velvet Underground. He is now 73 years old and few would begrudge the curmudgeonly genius his retirement..
The Velvet Underground, while being an iconic band, were also something of a personality battlefield. There were two main protagonists yearning for what the other brought to the table; Lou Reed’s gruff gorilla rock yearned for intellectual gravitas, whereas John Cale’s classical avant-garde yearned for distorted viola acceptance. When the inevitable split came, it saw the two men tread increasingly divergent paths, with Cage’s being arguably the more precarious.
Like many musicians, John Cale tends to excel in collaboration – see the Dream Syndicate, the Velvet Underground, albums with Nico, duets with Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and production for the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. Cale's 1982 LP Music For A New Society, however, was a largely solo effort, and one of the grimmest, loneliest LPs ever made. There are songs about shame and death, about violent longing, with melodies sometimes fragile, sometimes shattered.
About halfway through John Cale, a 1998 BBC documentary about the Welsh experimental rock authority, the focus shifts to the beauty of its subject’s home. "There are certain patterns of behavior you pick up when you’re young that never leave you, moments of tranquility that you get when you’re young that are always the most valuable," drawls Cale in voiceover, a soft and pliable topnote to the tender folk song underneath. The camera swoons over leaves rustling under a waterfall, cattle trotting benignly through verdant fields.
There’s hardly a shortage of acts dusting off their most cherished works for another trip around the world’s venues. Trust John Cale to do things differently. The 'classic album' norm is to revisit the artist's most popular work(s) and reproduce them as faithfully as possible. With a catalogue of such gems as Fear (1974) and 1973’s Paris 1919 to choose from, Cale's opted to revisit a little-heard, long out of print cult classic from 1982.
John Cale's relentless piano hammerings can be heard, not too faintly, in the backdrop of many an early Velvet Underground record. His accompaniment on the title track 'White Light/White Heat' is one of the first pieces of music to invoke the visual repetitiveness of driving, something we'd usually ascribe to Krautrock. You wouldn't have been able to hear John Cale's classical training very easily on these early Velvet Underground records, but his playing is calculated; he treats the piano as a percussive device, to guide and anchor the groove of each track.