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Paris 1919
John Cale
Reprise MS 2131
Released: 1973

John CaleLike Frank Zappa, John Cale is a fascinating, mercurial figure. Everything he has done over the years -- from his electric viola work and his development of destructive sound effects for the Velvet Underground onward -- bears witness to a formidable intelligence and commitment to what remains viable in the avant-garde tradition. Last year, Cale released his first Reprise album (following two excellent albums for Columbia), The Academy of Peril, which Warners justly called their first "classical" album. Paris 1919, by contrast, is pop-oriented with strong classical underpinnings. Indeed, it comes far closer to being a finished work of art than any previous attempt to effect a rock-classical synthesis.

The subject of Paris 1919 is nothing less than the entirety of Western European high culture, viewed roughly from a post-World War I, Dada-Surrealist perspective. The album is an epic reassessment of history, geography and art itself. Much of its music is in the Pink Floyd-Procol Harum genre -- densely textured and post-Romantic. (Paris was produced by Floyd-Harum wizard Chris Thomas.) The strings of the UCLA Symphony Orchestra are used to magnificent effect, enhanced with what sounds like a mellotron.

Cale's lyrics are something else entirely. He has scored a major coup by adapting, often brilliantly, the spirit of Dada-Surrealist poetry into the pop idiom. The contrast between the somewhat destructive playfulness of Dada and the Romantic thrust of the music sets up tensions what are never resolved, nor are they meant to be. At its most accessible, the poetry is highly illusory and multifaceted. The clearest example is in the album's most beautiful cut, "Andalucia," in which impressions of a woman, a place and history are woven inextricably into a moving and mysterious entity: "Andalucia, when can I see you/When it is snowing out again/Farmer John wants you/Louder and softer closer and nearer/Then again/Needing you taking you keeping you leaving you..." The song and the arrangement are ravishing, and to top it all off, Cale sings with a plaintiveness reminiscent of Steve Winwood.

On other cuts that have a similarly heavy sound, the lyrics are more playful: "There's a law for everything/And for elephants that sing to keep/The cows that agriculture won't allow..." is one of several hilarious pronouncements made in Cale's "Hanky Panky Nowhow," a song that, paradoxically, has a mystical, sensuous musical setting. The central image of the title cut, whose arrangement is somewhat similar to Nilsson's wonderful "Morning Glory," is that of a woman appearing as a ghost "from the clock across the hall." And a typically Surrealist fascination with time appears again in "Half Past France." The album's one all-out rocker is the screaming, tearing "Macbeth," which perfectly conjures up the ghostly violence of the play.

Though at first all of this might seem simply to be sublime nonsense, much of it improvised, cale employs imagery that is fundamentally cohesive in an impressionistic way and further unified by its elegiac spirit. His cerebrations are as Romantic as they are anti-Romantic, perhaps more the former, since the music finally impels us to take him very seriously. Wit, humor and irony are here in abundance. So too are metaphysical contemplation and sadness.

Paris 1919 is one of the most ambitious albums ever released under the name of "pop." In spite of and because of its irreconcilable contradictions, it requires a great deal of listening in order for its full implications to be perceived. As usual, John Cale is several steps ahead of the times. It is up to us to catch up with him. Paris 1919 is a pop masterpiece.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 5/10/73.

Bonus Reviews!

Extremely adventurous set combining rock beat and Cale's clever lyrics with sounds of the UCLA Symphony Orchestra. Other artists combine classical and rock, but Cale does it with a skill not found among many with bigger names. Most interesting aspect of the set is his way with lyrics and phrasing, and his ability to be several people on the same disk. Best cuts: "Child's Christmas In Wales," "Andalucia," "Half Past France."

- Billboard, 1973.

In which Cale subsumes Little Feat, the academy in stasis, and other subversive elements into a form known generically (don't tell anyone) as schlock-rock. Winsome stuff it is, too -- delectable melodies, dulcet singing, and such civilized rhymes as "Andalucia" and "see ya." But when you try to get past the surface pleasure of phrases like "Claim you with my iron drum" and "cows that agriculture won't allow" you realize that poets who emulate Edward Lear had better be funny about it -- or else stick with Delmore Schwartz. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

John Cale's third solo album possessed a rare beauty, demonstrating that the classically trained avant-garde rock & roll viola player could, when he wished, make melodic pop music with a lush elegance. (Reissued on CD in 1993.) * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.




Further reading on
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Album Review:
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For a look at Cale's lighter work, check out Paris 1919. Recorded in California with members of Little Feat, the album is an enigmatic and breathtaking work, beautifully orchestrated and featuring lovely songs throughout -- most notably "Hanky Panky Nohow," "The Endless Plain of Fortune" and "Andalucia." * * * *

- Christopher Scapellitti, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

It is hard to envision a European album being produced in L.A., at the appropriately named Southwest Studios. Maybe that is the reason Paris 1919 shines with a light that only shimmered through Cale's solo debut Vintage Violence (1971).

Of course, producer Chris Thomas is British, but in the studio band are Lowell George and Richard Hayward from Little Feat, champions of Californian Seventies rock. Orchestration features extensively, but this is not a classical work like The Academy in Peril (1972). Rather, it is a memorably lush pop album used by the artist to exorcize his past as a sonic experimentalist with LaMonte Young and The Velvet Underground.

The mesmerizing opener "Child's Christmas in Wales" references the most famous poet of Cale's country, Dylan Thomas. "Andalucia" and "Half Past France" are traveling autobiographies, while "Macbeth" is rendered boogie-rock style and "Graham Greene" takes tea with a pinch of reggae. "Hanky Panky Nowhow" and "Antarctica Starts Here" both express a bygone sensibility in rock.

The portrait of a convulsive soul in a rare moment of personal balance, and a musical feat he would never revisit, the album still excels as a cohesive, uplifting mixture of nostalgia and surrealism; a wonder of arrangements -- credited to Cale, who had arranged the mercurial The Marble Index by fellow maverick Nico -- and musical genius. Other Cale albums might be closer to the challenging spirit adored by a minority, but none has penetrated pop history like Paris 1919.

- Ignacio Julià, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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