One of the most famous creations to come out of the collection of artists who surrounded Andy Warhol in the 1960s was The Velvet Underground. While Warhol bankrolled their first release, the band itself had been the brainchild of Lou Reed and John Cale. Originally from Wales, Cale had come to New York City to study modern composition and had previously worked with composers like John Cage. However, he had become intrigued with pop music, and this, combined with Reed’s burgeoning interest in the avant-garde, made them an ideal fit for working together to create something new and exciting. Unfortunately for the world, however, Cale and Reed, both brilliant men, weren’t destined to work together for long. After only two recordings Cale had left the band as he and Reed couldn’t get along.
It’s been over 40 years since that fateful split took place, and while Reed is much more well known than Cale, the latter has never stopped creating. As a musician and producer he has worked with some of the most interesting and complex popular artists of the last three decades, including Patti Smith and Brian Eno. Aside from his work in popular music, he has also composed scores for films and created video art for prestigious events like the Venice Biennale. His latest foray into music, Extra Playful, a five-song EP available for digital download released by Domino Records, shows he’s lost none of his willingness to experiment with style and form and is still far more interesting to listen to than the majority of popular musicians.
From the new wave sound of the opening song “Catastrofuk,” with its nod to the Talking Heads of the the late 1970s, the melodic and melancholy “Whadya Mean By That” to the challenge of “Hey Ray,” Cale takes the conventions of pop music and tweaks them into something enough off-centre to make them intriguing. He uses our own assumptions of what a song should sound like against us. So while a song like “Catastrofuk” sounds like it’s going to be your typical electro-pop number with keyboards and other digitally enhanced sounds, Cale refuses to follow the expected pattern and takes you somewhere else.
While he takes his work seriously, the wonderful thing about Cale is his refusal to take himself seriously. Far too many pop musicians have an over inflated sense of their own importance which usually creeps into their work. This is especially true of most of those who lay any claim to being avant-garde. Cale, on the other hand, has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and on cuts like “Hey Ray,” with its sardonic take on the 1960s, he not only makes fun of people’s nostalgia for a “golden age”, he whittles away at his own place in pop history. All I could think of while listening to this song was the Velvet Underground’s infamous “Sister Ray,” and it was a response to people’s attempts at mythologising the band.
“Perfection,” the final cut on the EP, is a glimpse of Cale’s more introspective side. Whether he’s talking about the search for perfection in the creation of art, in personal relationships or even in terms of how we all live together on this planet isn’t made quite clear. However, it’s also not important. The song seems to be about the agonizing glimpses we occasionally manage to catch of perfection. We’re aware of its existence, but at the same time we realize how unrealistic it is to ever think of achieving it in whatever we attempt. We can respond in one of two ways – either give up in frustration and settle for less, or, even though we know we’re doomed to fail, keep striving for it anyway. How we chose to answer that question dictates what kind of life we have. We can play it safe and settle for a known mediocrity or we can take the chance of doing something great by risking failure and striving for perfection.
An EP is like a preview to give listeners an idea of what a musician is currently working on. With the release of Extra Playful, Cale is showing us he’s still pushing the envelope by blending pop music with an avant-garde sensibility. He sees things differently than most pop musicians and isn’t afraid to give us glimpses of his point of view. Unfortunately it’s not always a comfortable way of looking at the world, and some people might not appreciate it. While some might wish for the once upon a time days of the Velvet Underground and the Factory, Cale’s work is not an exercise in resurrecting the past. Extra Playful is currently available for download, and will be released on CD November 25, 2011 with an additional two songs. If this album an accurate indication of the direction he’s taking his music, it’s definitely a sign of very exciting things to come in the future.