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Pop Music That Explodes

John Cale
Deadly Nightshade: John Cale cakewalks a fine line on new album.

Thirty years later, John Cale still possesses the velvet touch

By Nicky Baxter

LOU REED'S belated and backhanded compliments notwithstanding, what really made the Velvet Underground go "zoom!" was Welshman John Cale's ceaseless sonic explorations. Reed wanted nothing more than to make pop music, as Cale has commented on several occasions. Cale, on the other hand, preferred pop that exploded. It was the battle of wills between these two men that ultimately shattered the Velvet Underground, and we all know who walked away victorious.

Since he was bounced from the group some 30 years ago, Cale has created alternately shocking and provocative, seductive and subtle, music.

Vintage Violence (1969) and Sabotage/Live, released a decade later, were ragingly cathartic affairs--as far as possible from the effete, nodding pop his former partner was churning out.

While Reed's solo music has remained unswervingly on the path toward domestication, Cale's transition from angry young man to mature postpunk patriarch has been nothing short of elegant. His newest album, Walking on Locusts (Rykodisc), is a portrait of a charming man whose fire has cooled but hasn't been completely snuffed out.

Happily, Walking on Locusts swarms with smart, acerbic songcraft. With instrumentation that ranges from steel-pedal guitar to Moroccan drumming to string quartets, this is unadulterated Cale, cakewalking the tightrope between accessibility and the avant-garde. Vastly underrated as a tunesmith, Cale is an intriguing talespinner with more than a nodding acquaintance with beat maintenance.

"Dancing Undercover," for instance, sports the sort of loping neocountry vibe that's become a Mark Knopfler trademark. The only difference is that "Dancing Undercover" is invested with more than impeccable licks; there's a sense of genuine feeling, of fun being had. And the lyrics are sheer poetry--however fractured.

Even the outlandishly extroverted steel-pedal break doesn't obscure such brilliantly off-the-cuff observations as "Thanks for thinking of me and thanks for the flowers / Deadly nightshade is beautiful / I could stare at them for hours."

This is also one of two tracks on which ex­Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker appears. Tucker's work, as succinct and pointed as ever, is an invaluable asset.

"Set Me Free" is similar in tone to "Dancing Undercover"; there's more of that sweet, languid steel-pedal guitar, strings, plunky bass and Cale's dry, unaffected vocals. Still, placing the two songs back to back doesn't detract from their individual beauty.

"So What," from whose lyrics the title is taken, is vintage John Cale. Thumped into motion by a boomy bass and Cale's burnished vocals, the song is filled out with an eye-rolling choral part. Although his musical contributions are limited to acoustic guitar and keyboards, Cale's singing and vocal arrangements approach perfection.

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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