Music

John Cale: Music for a New Society / M:FANS

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

Rather than merely reissue his classic 1981 album, John Cale reworks and rerecords the majority of the album, showing the thematic through line that connects the two.


John Cale

Music for a New Society / M:FANS

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2016-01-22
UK Release Date: 2016-01-22
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For whatever reason, John Cale’s contribution to the more outré sounds of the first two Velvet Underground albums has been largely overshadowed by his late bandmate’s outsized persona and cultural legacy. Perhaps it’s his more mercurial quality that prevents him from quick categorization, as is the case with Lou Reed. Having originated in the burgeoning school of minimalist modern composers like John Cage, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Cale brought a decidedly different approach to the Velvets gritty proto-punk. Listening to their first two albums against their post-Cale output, they almost sound like an entirely different group, the only through line being Reed’s street-punk lyrics and disaffected delivery.

Proof of this can be readily found in the sharp contrast between White Light/White Heat’s closing avant-rock epic, “Sister Ray", and it’s follow-up’s lead-off track, “Candy Says". While there were certainly hints of this sound throughout their first two albums, the more pop-leaning sensibilities were always cut through with Cale’s strident atonality and modernist approach to musical composition. Not that Cale wasn’t capable of making his own achingly beautiful pop records (look no further than Paris 1919 for the best example of this), rather he simply seemed more interested in pushing the form to its often illogical extremes.

Because of this, his recording career has largely been a hodgepodge of stylistically dissimilar albums that prevent there from being a decidedly Caleian sound the way there is with Reed. Ranging from minimalist recordings with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate through to his own strident explorations into atonality, pushing the boundaries of popular music well before Reed embraced gorgeously grating feedback on the polarizing Metal Machine Music. In addition to his work has a solo artist, Cale proved to have an ear for the future heirs to the underground, producing everyone from Nico to the Stooges to a young Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and myriad points in between.

Where his former band mates continued down a stylistically similar path to that forged with the Velvets, Cale constantly bounced back and forth between a host of styles and ideas, never content to simply settle for one sound over another. Having explored the more caustic extremes of his sound on his previous few albums, the turn of a new decade, following the decline of a punk scene he somewhat unwittingly helped birth, afforded Cale an immensely broad palate from which to pull. Having long since established his bona fides within the noisier elements of the underground, the hauntingly stark, gorgeous melodies permeating 1981’s Music for a New Society came as quite a surprise.

From opening track “Taking Your Life in Your Hands” on, Cale crafts a series of sparsely arranged, largely keyboard and acoustic guitar-based songs that find him updating the sound and feel of his early solo work for the new decade. Gone are any traces of harsh dissonance and atonality, replaced by a more melancholy, spectral pop sound the envelopes his poetic, fragmentary lyrics. Instead, Cale delivers some the most gorgeously affecting music of his career in tracks like “Thoughtless Kind", “Close Watch” and “If You Were Still Around”.

Only on “Changes Made” does Cale’s voice raise much above a raspy whisper, becoming something close to mid-period Tom Waits exploring the gravely edges of his range. Here too the electric guitars and clattering percussion return, breaking the somnambulant spell cast by the preceding tracks. Music From a New Society offers more overt nods to Cale’s classic upbringing. “Damn Life” cleverly builds its melody out of the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, while “Rise Sam and Rimsky Korsakov” is a spoken-word piece built atop music by the titular composer.

From here, the collection is augmented with a handful of outtakes and demos from the same time period, each very much in keeping with the sound and feel of the original album. But as this is a John Cale project, it’s no mere reissue with a few tacked on bonus tracks. Instead, Music for a New Society / M:FANS, as it’s been dubbed here, offers both a remastered version of the long out of print original album alongside an all new take on the album, cheekily identifying it with the acronym M: FANS.

By taking this approach, Cale creates a direct through line between the last 30-plus years of his recording career. Showing himself to still be in surprisingly good voice, there’s little in the way of drastic vocal differences between the new and old recordings. Here too, Cale makes the case for the music’s contemporary relevance by updating the sound and feel of the arrangements to make them more in line with his current musical proclivities without sounding too far from the original source material.

If anything, these reworked versions carry with them the added weight and misery of the intervening thirty odd years and all that changes, both personal and professional, that have occurred since then. There’s an additional gravity to Cale’s performance, here augmented by his current band and aided by the likes of the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman who lends her vocals to a wildly altered “Close Watch.” Even “Thoughtless Kind", with its electro-heavy beats and auto-tuned and a-melodic vocals, manages to work better in its drastically reimagined format than it has any right to.

In the hands of a lesser artist, these reinterpretations of classic songs would feel little more than a cheap cash-in, lacking any sort of artistic merit and integrity. But in Cale’s hands, the music remains just as vital as before, updated for a modern audience while providing a definite point of reference. To hear the sonic progression between the two distinct albums is to hear an artist constantly evolving, reevaluating and creating at a vital pace. In this, Cale proves himself to be, if not the most culturally significant member of the Velvet Underground, certainly the most musically so. Here’s to hoping for a similarly thoughtful treatment to more of his back catalog.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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