When I wrote about The Velvet Underground and their legendary self titled record, I wasn’t exactly complimentary. “This most recent listen hasn’t made me love it, it has made me respect it”, was the extent of my praise. So his Velvet Underground origins have absolutely nothing to do with me deciding I needed to listen to more John Cale. The one and only motivation to listen to more John Cale is that he produced the Modern Lovers Modern Lovers record. And anyone who has ever been in the presence of Jonathan Richman is worth listening to. So here I go, with John Cale and Fear.
Before it falls apart into a very deliberate mess, Fear is a Man’s Best Friend is a great guitar/piano fuelled pop/rock song. Even the car crash ending, which I would usually see as a cheap gimmick, feels like the perfect conclusion to the air tight structure that precedes it. Replacing the guitar and drums with strings and tenderness, Buffalo Ballet is pure piano balladry.
With its simple piano tinkling and quietly crashing waves in the background, Emily seems sparse and minimalist, at first. But once Cale’s heartfelt vocals join the mix, backed by a gorgeous choir, there’s a richness to this song that doesn’t need layers of lush instruments to shine through. A weird combination of country music and psychedelic nightmare, Gun has a threatening edge to it that sounds like it could all go horribly wrong. And at eight minutes, that’s a long time for a song to keep you on edge. The good news is, it totally justifies its extended length.
With its dancing piano, ooh-aah backing vocals and spoken word interludes from a lovelorn woman, The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy sounds almost quaint compared to Gun. Like it’s from some light musical farce or comedy. And while this might seem contradictory after that description, as a whole, what I like most about John Cale and Fear is its tightness and consistency. I have no idea how this works as a representation of his discography. But compared to the Velvet Underground, Fear is a much more disciplined, cohesive record. There’s real restraint and song craft on display here that made it a lot more accessible to me than Cale’s work with Loud Reed and co.