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The American Metaphysical Circus: Esoteric Label Mines Art Rock From The USA, John Cale

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United States of AmericaUnder the auspices of its new president, Clive Davis, Columbia Records aggressively courted the rock revolution in the late 1960s. The classy home to Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams built upon its successes with Paul Revere and the Raiders, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan to tap into the youth market with a wide variety of rock artists. Two outré albums from the venerable Columbia catalogue have recently been reissued by Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint, and they both live up to the label’s name.

The United States of America only released one album in its short career. The self-titled 1968 LP for Columbia’s classical Masterworks division was unusual even for the heady, excitingly adventurous times and a true example of “alternative” rock! The six-person band consisting of Joseph Byrd (electronic music/electric harpsichord/organ/calliope/piano), Dorothy Moskowitz (lead vocals), Gordon Marron (electric violin/ring modulator), Rand Forbes (electric bass), Craig Woodson (electric drums/percussion) and Ed Bogas (“occasional” organ/piano/calliope) defiantly rejected the conventions of the young rock scene. With no guitar player, the band’s sound was heavily electronic and unabashedly avant-garde. Byrd was a student of avant-garde hero John Cage and a member of the Fluxus “anti-art” art movement. Despite these credentials, he became interested in the power of pop and rock with young people. Through an association with Masterworks head, producer John McClure, Byrd and co. were signed to Columbia in the hopes of earning their underground sound a wider audience.

Byrd and the band dubbed The United States of America blended San Francisco-style acid rock with dense soundscapes and experimentation achieved by electronically altering the sound of conventional instrumentation. The self-titled The United States of America was uncompromising and unlike any other release on the pop-rock scene. Produced by David Rubinson – who would go on to collaborate with Herbie Hancock, The Pointer Sisters and Phoebe Snow – it melded compositional and musical sophistication with utter primitivism. Its tracks formed a song cycle about American life, with sharply satirical, often absurdist lyrical observations and no concessions to a commercial sensibility. Columbia marketed the album with an ad reading, “There’s a United States of America that’s a far cry from Mom, Apple Pie and The Flag,” but it was never destined for mainstream success.

After the jump: more on The United States of America, plus a lost album from John Cale and Terry Riley – and order links, track listings, etc.! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 30, 2014 at 10:19

There It Comes Now: Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” Box Set Arrives In December

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White Light - White Heat Box SetUPDATED 10/4: “No one listened to it.  But there it is, forever – the quintessence of articulate punk.  And no one goes near it.”  So commented the rather articulate Lou Reed in a statement for Rolling Stone regarding Universal’s upcoming 45th anniversary 3-CD box set of The Velvet Underground’s sophomore effort, White Light/White Heat.  Due on December 3, the new set follows last year’s 6-CD super deluxe edition of the band’s debut Velvet Underground & Nico from Universal as well as the 5-LP box The Verve/MGM Albums from Sundazed.  In addition, a 2-CD “highlights” version will be available as part of the label’s Deluxe Edition series.

The 1967 debut of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico was a rather outré release for the jazz-oriented Verve label – though let’s not forget, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were also Verve artists at the time!  The band’s name didn’t even appear on the famous “banana” album cover – just the signature of the group’s nominal producer, Andy Warhol.  “So Far Underground, You Get the Bends!” infamously proclaimed an ad in the Village Voice, but truth is, even the underground cognoscenti didn’t embrace the band immediately.  The critics weren’t much more kind, with Jazz magazine proclaiming the VU’s debut “rather tedious despite their ventures into electric viola, et. al.,” adding that “their forte is the loud whine.”

For all that, though, the dark and uncompromising The Velvet Underground & Nico anticipated the sounds of the future. Punk, glam, noise and even goth were anticipated, though the band still made at least casual nods at pop, rhythm-and-blues, jazz and garage rock. Primarily written by Reed with contributions from bandmates Cale and Maureen Tucker, the Velvets dealt with drugs, sex and violence in a frank and bold way, while Nico’s deep, odd, gothic vocals added mightily to the feeling of paranoia and unease that permeated the record. This was the sound of the harsh underbelly of New York City.

The group, sans Nico, recorded 1968’s White Light/White Heat with Tom Wilson in the producer’s chair.  The original album bore the credit “Edited and remixed under the supervision of Tom Wilson,” and he also received a producer credit for the track “Sunday Morning.”  With Wilson officially at the helm, Reed, Cale and company aimed for an even harsher sound.  Considering the relative lack of success of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the pursuit of rawness on White Light was the opposite of conventional wisdom.  (For the record, VU&N peaked at No. 171 in Billboard and No. 102 in Cash Box.  It was difficult to find for much of 1967 thanks to a legal battle over the image of onetime Warhol associate Eric Emerson in the gatefold artwork, which might have hurt its chances further.  Still, the album sold over 58,000 copies by February 14, 1969, according to an MGM royalty statement, so Lou Reed’s famous statement to Brian Eno that it sold “30,000 copies in the first five years” wasn’t quite true.)

Cale was quoted as describing White Light/White Heat as “consciously anti-beauty,” although most would argue that the Velvets found a certain kind of beauty in the darkness.  Recorded over mere days in summer 1967 and issued on January 30, 1968, White Light’s six songs are infused with the countercultural, avant-garde spirit.  “I Heard Her Call My Name” made prominent use of screeching feedback, while sex was frankly referred to in “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and the 17+-minute jam “Sister Ray.”  The title track referred to drugs, and even the most “commercial” song on the LP, “Here She Comes Now,” employed a double entendre in its title.  Reportedly Tom Wilson left the studio during the recording of “Sister Ray,” unable to tolerate the “noise.”

Though White Light/White Heat sounds like the work of one band on the same page, tensions between Reed and Cale were splintering the band, and Cale was eased out prior to 1969’s more folk-rock-leaning The Velvet Underground.  Prior to the release of 1970’s Loaded – the VU’s most pop/rock-flavored album yet – Lou Reed departed the ranks, and it was over in all but name.

What will you find on Universal’s deluxe reissue of White Light/White Heat?  Hit the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 2, 2013 at 10:20

Review: John Cale, “Conflict and Catalysis: Productions and Arrangements 1966-2006”

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Catalysis (ca-tal-y-sis): The action of a catalyst, especially an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction.

With his induction into Ace Records’ Producers series, John Cale joins an esteemed group including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Sly Stone, Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach.  If Cale isn’t always thought of in the same breath as those giants, it’s simply because his career has been so diverse, encompassing writing, performing and arranging for artists ranging from The Stooges to Siouxsie and the Banshees.  Well, there’s simply no better place to appreciate the man’s art than on Conflict and Catalysis (Big Beat CDWIKD 299), the illuminating new anthology devoted to John Cale, producer and arranger.  Taking in the 20 songs on display here, it’s clear that Cale’s catalysis as a producer has led to some of the most distinct work in these artists’ career, making the conflicts along the way well worth the while.

These tracks could be the work of multiple producers, so impossible is it to pin Cale to one stylistic approach.  The musically rebellious Welshman trained at Goldsmith College at the University of London, nurturing his talent on the viola.  He was in the vanguard of the avant-garde Fluxus movement and was an associate of John Cage but perhaps ironically, also a devotee of Aaron Copland.  Cale’s participation in the 18-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Variations” even landed him a spot on Garry Moore’s popular game show I’ve Got a Secret.  All of this experimentation and fearlessness towards dissonance and musical repetition made him the perfect foil for Lou Reed when they founded The Velvet Underground.  Cale and Reed frequently clashed, but when they found themselves in synch, the results were astonishing.  Reed’s dark, earthy lyrical poetry formed a distinct union with the multi-instrumentalist Cale’s electrically-amplified viola, piano and bass guitar, creating a sound that was only rock music in the sense that it challenged convention.

What will you find on Ace’s career-spanning compilation?  Hit the jump to explore! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

March 22, 2012 at 10:05