Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Cast a Shadow

Artists: John Cale; Mo Tucker
Albums: Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, Guts, Wrong Way Up [with Brian Eno ] (JC); I Spent a Week There the Other Night (Mo)
Source: Bought used (WWU); bought new (all others)

History can be a burden. John Cale and Mo Tucker, each of whom has had a career in music nearly anyone could envy, nevertheless cannot make an album that doesn't stand in the shadow of history. They have bodies of work that range from good to excellent (the latter applying especially to Cale), yet every record they've ever made or ever will make is compared to the deathless work they did during the late 60s in the Velvet Underground.

It's been well more than a quarter century since the first VU LP was pressed with the peel-able Warhol cover; can you imagine having to stand in your own shadow for that long?

I'd think it's terribly frustrating, on the one hand. On the other, that ever-longer shadow is also the foot in the door for artists like these. Cale, at least, has a serious background in music and no doubt would have written & recorded music even if he'd never met Lou Reed. But it's equally likely that he'd have garnered less attention and collaborated with a lesser stock of fellow artists had it not been for that earlier breakthrough. And Mo, who'd been laid low, working at Wal-Mart, when she re-entered the fray of music making...well, it's pretty obvious that without the Velvets on her resume, she wouldn't be making records at all.

She must know it, too, because of these two ex-Undergrounders, she is far less shy about wrapping her arms around everyone's collective memories. Like each entry in her small catalogue of post-VU work, I Spent a Week There the Other Night doesn't shy away from the past - Mo dives in head-first. There's a Velvets cover ("I'm Waiting for the Man"), songs that sound like outtakes from the 3rd VU album ("Blue, All the Way to Canada" and "S.O.S.") and contributions from Lou Reed, Cale and Sterling Morrison (mostly separately, but also all at once on "I'm Not").

Tucker sees the shadow and understands its nature. Instead of trying to outrun it, she wraps herself in its comfortable cloth...and makes guileless, pretty wonderful music that always has the spirit of the Velvets in its loose grooves, even when the sound is more garage-y.

It's a smart strategy, but it would be easy to understand someone who wanted to assert themselves outside of the shadow's bounds. Cale, who only played on 2 VU albums (But, oh! What albums those 2 are!) has an audibly more difficult relationship with his past accomplishments. The four discs of his that I have are all over the place: pop so genteel its nearly shiny (Vintage Violence); rock rethought as chamber music (Paris 1919); twisted, dirty-ass rock & roll (Guts, which collects tracks from his 70s Island recordings); and ebullient electro-pop (Wrong Way Up, a thoroughly fab collaboration with Brian Eno). And those are just the ones I own - the rest of his catalog ranges from howling avant-rock to post-classical compositions and nearly everything in between.

Almost none of it sounds like the Velvets, yet in a way Cale's music is almost entirely reliant on the artistic freedoms he helped stake out as he began to cast his initial shadow. Would Phil Manzanera play guitar the way he does on Guts if he'd never heard White Light/White Heat? Would Cale even know Eno if the latter hadn't once been in thrall to the former's accomplishments?

Probably not. Which makes it a precarious balancing act, both outrunning the shadow and making sure you never get too far from it (witness Cale's periodic returns to re-collaborate with Reed over the years). Many artists privately fret over the fact that their fan-base is living on their past accomplishments - anyone from John Fogerty to Francis Ford Coppola can relate, surely - but it also must be gratifying to have those past accomplishments for an audience to hold dear. As Jonathan Richman put it when I once asked him if he gets tired of hearing requests for Modern Lovers songs every night: "It's flattering; those are my songs they want to hear."

SISOSIG? This is a straight flush of keepers. Cale's discs are always skillfully made (which is probably the best thing I can say about Vintage Violence), usually engaging, and sometimes there are flashes of brilliance like the balance of Paris 1919 and nearly every note on Guts. Oddly enough, the real star of the four might just be Wrong Way Up, which manages to be both catchy as the best bubblegum and deep as mid-period Talking Heads. While it was made nearly 2 decades ago, WWU sounds like a perfectly contemporary blueprint for the disc Eno made with David Byrne earlier this year.

Tucker's music shows far less skill and savvy than even the loosest of Cale's tracks...and may end up being better for it. She sounds like she's having the time of her life on every song, and it's hard not to have the same experience as a listener. Mo knows she's getting a hearing because of the shadow she casts from way back, but instead of coasting on reputation she sounds thrilled and determined to earn every moment of it.

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