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 4.0: PRISMISM. The second “solo” album (i.e., not credited to 801) from Phil Manzanera enlists the help of familiar faces including half of Split Enz (Tim, Eddie and some guy named Neal), both Godley AND Creme (who were surgically joined at the hip at this point), 801ers Bill MacCormick and Simon Phillips, and former Roxy musicians John Wetton and Paul Thompson. Of course, the question on most people’s minds is “How much does this sound like Roxy Music?” and the answer is “Not nearly as much as it sounds like pre-Frenzy Enz and G&C with better manners.” K-Scope mixes in a few instrumentals with mostly songs featuring slightly prickly and sometimes silly subject matter, rarely trying the same thing twice but not as eclectic as Robert Fripp’s Exposure, for example. Eno’s early albums were more extreme, the Enz more openly tuneful; a cross between G&C’s L and Wetton’s Caught In The Crossfire seems like a reasonable place to plot this. The Roxy references are felt mostly in the guitar work (Ferry’s old license plate, “CPL 5938,” is even namechecked in “Numbers”) and the presence of saxophones in the mix (courtesy of Mel Collins). Tim Finn takes lead vocals on four tracks, though I’ve never found him to be a suitable mouthpiece for other people’s ideas. Bill MacCormick and brother Ian (a music journalist) provide songwriting support, and Bill’s two turns at the microphone (“Gone Flying,” “Walking Through Heaven’s Door”) might be the two best tracks on here. John Wetton’s vocal cameo on “Numbers” is a low-key performance that neither excites nor disappoints. K-Scope was apparently mixed quickly to make way for Roxy’s triumph my fanny return, and marks the end to Manzanera’s mid-Siren/Manifesto dream. The 801-era albums are all probably worth owning at some point, assuming you’ve already acquired all of the proper Roxy releases and Ferry/Eno albums aforehand. The closing “You Are Here” is especially interesting, and points the way toward the instrumental solo album, Primitive Guitars.
As much as the quirky music of 10cc prepares you for Godley and Creme, the pair suffers from a commercial blind spot that’s baffling or frustrating by turns. They’re capable of writing brilliant snippets of art pop, sampled throughout the record, but insist on subverting their pop sensibilities to wild experimentation. “Random Brainwaves” (one of several tracks featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera), “I Pity Inanimate Objects” and “Get Well Soon” (with Paul McCartney of all people on backing vocals) scratch at the door of greatness, but when the door’s opened they run in the other direction like puerile pranksters. Even with all this, Freeze Frame is more commercial than their first two records and set the stage for the far superior Ismism (a.k.a. Snack Attack). The exotic arrangements are built by treating (or torturing) traditional sounds: vocals are stretched like taffy, guitars are shrouded in effects, and all manner of odd percussion is tossed into the salad. Compounding the confusion are inscrutable lyrics and strange narratives; “Brazilia (Wish You Were Here)” might be about the effects of greenhouse gasses or nuclear destruction, “Freeze Frame” appears to be about a person suffering from some phobia, but pinning any of this down is near impossible. For that reason, “Mugshots” is one of the few tracks that doesn’t escape recollection; it’s pretty catchy and has a storyline you can actually follow. Given the daunting nature of their limited catalog, Freeze Frame is one of the better Godley and Creme records, but it’s still a hard one to warm up to, even after repeated plays. On a different note, the nonverbal credits on the picture sleeve are appreciably clever.
This is the studio pop of WettonManzanera crossed with the guitarist’s Cuban past. Southern Cross is a rich-sounding record, elevated by the nearly full-time collaboration of Tim Finn as lyricist and vocalist. It’s also a serious record: “Dr. Fidel,” “A Million Reasons Why,” “Rich And Poor.” They sing of class distinctions, dictators, unscrupulous doctors. I have to imagine that the lyrics on songs like “Venceremos” better reflect the feelings of Messr. Manzanera. That or Tim Finn was reading The Motorcycle Diaries that week. Finn is actually only one of the featured vocalists, Gary Dyson being the other. Dyson has a voice suited to the adult pop market, more flexible than Finn’s sometimes high-pitched pipes. Personally, I think Finn could have done great things with “The Great Leveller,” and maybe he’ll resurrect it for his solo career some day. Southern Cross is a very smart and professional pop record, if more political than most. However, I don’t know where the market is for it. Roxy Music fans would need to exhaust all of their original works plus everything by Bryan Ferry, the first two proper Brian Eno albums and maybe Diamond Head before arriving at Southern Cross. Tim Finn fans don’t lack suitable side avenues either: Split Enz, Crowded House. As for Phil Manzanera fans, I have to wonder how many exist outside of the Roxy axis. I can imagine maybe Latin Roxy fans aligning with Manzanera, but the weirdos went with Eno while the pretty boys and girls belong to Bryan. I’ve picked up a few of his efforts out of curious habit and Southern Cross stands as tall as any of them. It’s south and to the left of my usual tastes, but we all have to leave our little island sometimes.