John Cale rocks and the results are frighteningly good. Recorded with Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, Fear is absurdly inventive, and Cale is quick to show off the fruit of its collective oddness on the opening “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend,” which quickly morphs from a harmless pop song into mounting, elastic paranoia. From there, all bets are off as Cale and crew careen into rock’s conventions. “Buffalo Ballet” is gilded country pop, “Barracuda” is tickled by an ocean of tiny oddities, “Emily” is sweetness remembered, “Ship Of Fools” is otherwordly pop haunted by the spirit of Christmas. Fear is a plate of succulent oddities until “Gun” arrives. Here, Cale manages to channel the dark energy of Lou Reed (or Patti Smith or The Stooges if you prefer) into eight minutes of bleak fury that move so purposefully it feels like four, and you begin to wonder whether John Cale isn’t some mischievous, mythical god among us, donning different forms to fight away the boredom of a life meted out in flinty minutes. “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy,” the album’s single, is actually the least interesting song on here, a male/female duet that plods along to some hoary country melody and only incites me to want to put The Kinks’ Soap Opera on the turntable. All is forgiven, however, with “You Know More Than I Know;” luminous genius, that. The album closes with another menacing rock/punk experiment, “Momomma Scuba,” featuring what sounds to be an army of guitars. I have enjoyed every John Cale album to date, but Fear is the man’s best album so far. Very fitting for his first on Island, since you wouldn’t want to be caught on one without it.
Kronomyth 5.5: LAYERS OF AYERS. This album had been the source of speculation on my part for years as it represented such an unusual axis of talent. And no less a luminary than Dave Thompson has found in June 1, 1974 the nexus of art-rock royalty, or at least enough inspiration to write an entire book around it. On a superficial level, this is a live album featuring Kevin Ayers and his touring band at the time (The Soporifics) plus a constellation of stars who scored extremely high on the absurdity/profundity scale: Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Nico. (As if that weren’t enough, Mike Oldfield drops by for a lovely guitar solo on “Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues.”) Add to that a little bit of history (a rare and early glimpse of Eno on stage as a solo artist) and an unhealthy dose of drama (Cale had discovered Ayers sleeping with his wife the night before this performance), and you have the makings of a memorable evening. As to whether this represents a divinely orchestrated alignment of stars, well, not to me. Just the previous year, The Rainbow had hosted Eric Clapton’s return alongside members of The Who, Blind Faith, Traffic and The Faces. To your mainstream musical consumer, Ayers and his ad hoc freakshow must have seemed like amateur night by comparison. Of course, the two revues are worlds apart. The Clapton concert sought to recapture lost ground, while Ayers and his allies were writing a new rock manifesto. Eno handles the role of opening act surprisingly well; “Driving Me Backwards” comes off without a hitch and, though overdone, “Baby’s On Fire” does contain a scorching solo in the middle. Cale contributes what is handily the oddest version of “Heartbreak Hotel” you’ll ever hear, made all the richer by the personal context behind it. The first side ends, how else?, with a version of The Doors’ “The End” by Nico that delivers the goods as only Nico can. The second side of the elpee features a handful of tracks from Ayers that move adroitly from one to the other. The breezy “May I?” is a highlight; the performances suggest a cross between Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry, with the caveat that Ayers is the prototype, not the copy. If June 1, 1974 isn’t as good as I expected, I expected a lot. My main knock on the album is that there isn’t more of it, and what there is of it (mostly Ayers) is what I was least interested in. A suitable appreciation of Ayers may come with time, however, so I reserve the right to gripe about too little Ayers layter.
Bryan Ferry returns to the role of world-weary romantic on Mamouna, but he’s picked up some new tricks along the way, made plain in the opening moments of “Don’t Want To Know.” The electronic effects announce the singer’s intent to infuse his muse with the mix-heavy melange of ambient/techno, underscored by the participation of Brian Eno. And the Roxy reunion doesn’t end there: Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay return on a few tracks as well. Bryan has never really shaken the ghost of Avalon, choosing instead to bring the original vision into sharper focus over the years. It’s the attention to sonic detail on Mamouna that stands out in my mind; the melodies are otherwise transparent, the vocals lovely but reduced to melancholy mumbling in spots. The guitar parts read like one of Eno’s ambient endeavors: mood guitar, atmosphere guitar, drift guitar, scratch guitar. These drift in and out of music, as do the sultry backing vocalists, found voices, and Bryan’s own keyboards. (Unlike Bête Noire, Ferry writes all the material and plays much of it himself.) It’s a remarkable world, one that wraps around you like a thick mist and offers tantalizing shapes in the shadows. And then there’s the inseparable beat, the unseen heart in this amorphous entity. At first, Mamouna is captivating, “Don’t Want To Know” and “Your Painted Smile” in particular. But, as often happens with Bryan Ferry, style and substance seem inextricable; “Mamouna” slips past like a cool breeze, “The 39 Steps” dissipates into the darkness much as Avalon’s “The Space Between.” The closing tracks shake the dust from Morpheus’ cloak to deliver scintillating sounds: the warmly rendered “Which Way To Turn,” the invigorating “Wildcat Days,” the surprising “Gemini Moon.” As the mist clears in the waning moments of “Chain Reaction,” we’re treated to a glimpse of what surely must be Roxy’s old ghost, reminded again that the two spirits dwell in the same house. For some reason, I approach these albums braced for disappointment and walk away resolute in my respect for Ferry’s artistry. If I place this behind Bête Noire, it’s by a nose at best. The two are both solid works, and I had initially expected to endorse Mamouna (downbeat mood and all), until I reflected that the disc could have been even better. It’s to Bryan Ferry’s credit that I can hold him to such high standards after all this time, but the fact remains that half of Mamouna is merely good. The other half is well worth the trip for any would-be Orpheus, a ferry ride across dark waters to where lost loves loom like shadows.