Wednesday, August 17, 2011

52. John Cale, "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" (1974)


John Cale veered all over the place from Europeanized string chamber music to discordant avant-garde thought experiments to, his own term, dirtyass rock 'n' roll. He was never the main man in the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed saw to that early and often, but he brought something that was sorely missed in his absence, a natural chaos-maker with formal training that helped shape some of their best stuff. (They were also fine without him, as it turned out, just more wonders of that band.) I tend to go for the rock 'n' roll, so I like Fear and Slow Dazzle and the live Sabotage albums probably best. He peaked for me in the mid-/late '70s. Phil Manzanera is playing guitar on this one, and Eno ... is there. "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" is the first song on the first side of Fear and lets you in on much of what's ahead: the piano miked tight and very bangy, the half-drunken Welsh-inflected stream of sing-along vocals, and the slow-build dynamics, starting with open spaces and Cale working out a simple melody. Then gradually it accrues sounds to its side like burrs until the whole thing is nigh unto a raging behemoth that feels just seconds from a messy explosion of some kind. I'm exaggerating—that description better fits the formidable eight-minute "Gun," which opens the second side of the album. But this is a nice warm-up—more palatable, even sweet, by comparison. Or something. Maybe it's the explicit anxiety. Might as well be right there with it, that's what John Cale seems to be saying. Feel that anxiety. Can you feel it?

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