After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1968, John Cale—arguably the band’s most accomplished musician—dabbled in production and session work, before finally putting out his first solo album in 1970. Vintage Violence actually beat Loaded into the stores by about six months, but was even less of a hit.
It’s an oddity of an album, consisting mostly of straightforward rock songs based around his pounding piano, colored by country-styled electric guitar and crisp drums. The lyrics don’t always click, but the songs are so catchy the meanings don’t matter. “Gideon’s Bible” and “Please” sport lovely melodies, while “Big White Cloud” and “Charlemagne” go for a big production sound. The juxtaposition of the folkie “Amsterdam”, the startling “Ghost Story” and the simple “Fairweather Friend” demonstrates his refusal to be pigeonholed. Throughout, the then-unknown Garland Jeffreys wails along in harmony.
Both Church Of Anthrax, his last album for Columbia and a collaboration with avant-gardist Terry Riley, and The Academy In Peril, his first album for Reprise (who’d hired him as an A&R exec), were difficult listening for those seeking the mainstream pop of Vintage Violence. Which only made his next “rock” album more striking.
Paris 1919 is another collection of straightforward songs, recorded largely with members of Little Feat as the house band, giving the proceedings a slicker, L.A. feel. The opening “Child’s Christmas In Wales” shares its title with the wonderful Dylan Thomas piece, though its typically obscure lyrics that barely rhyme make it an unlikely Yuletide classic. “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “Antartica Starts Here” offer lush soundscapes, but the title track with its rich orchestration is the highlight of the album.
A switch to Island Records put him in touch with some like-minded individuals who, like and with him, recorded a series of albums that predicted both punk and New Wave, both in sound and subject matter. But he could also be tender, as demonstrated on the lovely “I Keep A Close Watch”. The Island Years 2-CD retrospective combines the three albums from this period. Rhino’s Seducing Down The Door compilation samples the same period but within the context of the rest of his solo career, including his 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno. But one of the more satisfying collections is the live Fragments Of A Rainy Season album. Recorded “unplugged”-style with only piano and acoustic guitar, these stripped-down arrangements bring out the basic quality in each. And his closing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” more than likely inspired Jeff Buckley’s beautiful version.
John Cale Vintage Violence (1970)—3
John Cale Paris 1919 (1973)—3
John Cale Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992)—3½