Tuesday, December 10, 2013

John Cale - Helen of Troy

Released in 1975, the same year as the great Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy came out without the consent of Cale, who didn't consider it completed, although he did as much as he could immediately after finishing the production of Patti Smith's Horses. Of course, it's hard to say what he wanted it to sound like, but this is one of his faves for me. Interesting note - I must have an early pressing of the vinyl because, per Wikipedia, later releases removed "Leaving It Up To You" due to the reference to Sharon Tate, even though this was 6 years after her murder.

As was Slow Dazzle, this is more of a "rock record", with personnel including Phil Collins (!) on drums, Eno on synth and Chris Spedding on guitar. The opener, "My Maria" shows how Cale was able to combine his semi-ballad songwriting within a rock format, and Spedding's guitar really drives this, while the keys and female backing singers give it a lush feel. The title cut has a terrific, driving beat along with a truly dramatic and cinematic horn section and fine washes of noise from Eno.

Changing gears radically, "China Sea" sounds fairly bubblegum - hell, I think the main chord progression was used in a Partridge Family song! - complete with loads of harmony vocals. "Engine" moves from a piano ballad to a pounding, discordant monster, reminding me of Cale's at-times-slightly-off-key piano bashing in the Velvets. There seems to be a bit of Roxy Music influence in "Save Us", though with a bit more edge and aggression, and "Cable Hogue" is an arty ballad. Strings dominate the beautiful love song "I Keep a Close Watch" ("on this heart of mine") while one of the highlights of the record is his rockin' version of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso", which became as famous for this version as much as for Richman's original. Cale's reading is a bit more vicious than the Lovers and Spedding adds a cool, repeating slide guitar line.

Another stellar cut is the afore-mentioned "Leaving It All Up To You", a terrifyingly emotional number, with Cale shrieking as if from the confines of the straight jacket on the cover. One of the more unusual numbers is the slow-blues-rock of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" - not something that I would expect from Cale, but somehow he makes it his own, with Spedding being quite restrained in his playing. The album ends with the dark, extremely dramatic "Sudden Death". sounding like the heavy soundtrack for a noir scene.

Another superb outing, despite Cale's own reservations. Excellent for those who don't mind some artful drama with their hard rock.