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John Cale - Shifty Adventures in the Nookie Wood

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Artist: John Cale

Album: Shifty Adventures in the Nookie Wood

Label: Double Six

Review date: Oct. 2, 2012

John Cale’s work over the last decade has been on an upswing. While those few years in the Velvet Underground will always figure large in his reputation, it’s a fragment of his career now, a middle ground between the avant-garde drone, introducing the world to The Stooges, and creating the arrangement of “Hallelujah” that launched a generation of karaoke bathos.

Beyond those varied segments of the music world, his solo work has always seemed particularly the work of a sole individual, sitting to the side of trends. He can take the stage with just a piano and bring the lush arrangements of his songbook to life. Working with more collaborative backing bands would likely have reined in his allusions to literature and modernism. But his pretension is an asset. His high-brow/low-brow fascinations have lead to stunning bits of introverted irony, like his desolate take on “Hearkbreak Hotel.”

He’s acclimated well to digital audio workstation production. Hobosapiens and Black Acetate had the sort of clean-room perfection that has been present in Cale’s work since the 1970s, but also a sense of discovery as he knitted the session musician work in with samples and sequences. Nine years on, he’s basically mastered the software … and that drains some life from Shifty Adventures in the Nookie Wood. Sometimes the polish sounds like the peak of analog perfection, like Bowie or Iggy in Berlin. That makes for a strange setting for “Hemmingway,” where images of between-the-wars Spain slink along to a Sales Brothers groove. The title track is similar, with more pronounced electronics and ’80s bass splatters. The lyrics seem like some kind of arcane pillow talk, but it’s all too busy to light any sparks. At the weakest end of this collection, production technique drowns out his strengths. A ballad like “Mary” starts sinking under the weight of radio-ready compressed drums. The vocal track is laden with FX, and the edges of the melody are tugged into place via vocoder, toward adult-contemporary blandness.

There’s even thicker vocoded vocals elsewhere. Cale is a savvy guy, and it’s pretty clear he’s not playing with it to mimic chart pop. Nookie Wood sandwiches decades of different approaches, and the vocoder applies the friction of something that’s ridiculously now to his back catalog of techniques. Still, it’s a weird choice. His voice is thin, but never off pitch, providing just the amount of emotion a song requires. Vocoder ends up draining power from his delivery rather than bringing it to robotic heights. “December Rains” gets the heaviest treatment, and the sparse backing is the right setting, but it’s let down by an indifferent lyric with some jarring topicality (“while Google is getting on your nerves”). “Mothra” makes the irony explicit; it sounds like he’s pleading to a middle-aged woman to “try something new,” but the object of his affectation is actually a Godzilla villain. All his sweet pleading is met with industrial scraping and two-step bass beats.

If most of this record tries too hard, the track that piles it on the thickest turns out to be the best. “Living With You” throws it all in — acoustic guitar strums, swirling vocals, burbling synths — and spins it into a big crescendo. Cale’s command of dense orchestration is unmatched, and it’s at its most interesting when he applies simple pop tropes. But there’s not a lot here that works at the level of Hobosapiens and Black Acetate. For a man who long ago turned the fear of change into his best friend, it’s disappointing how uneven his explorations are in Nookie Wood.

By Ben Donnelly

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