John Cale, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. John Cale has always confounded expectations, consistently serving up surprises galore. He is a card-carrying member of the avant garde and has been since his earliest days when he studied classical music, threw in with Lamonte Young and then encountered rock and roll. With Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, Cale took modern music down a decidedly orginal path on the first two Velvet Underground albums and has never looked back.
Scads of solo albums, production credits and way-cool collaborations later, and the 70-year-old permanent delinquent is still clearing his own path. The sounds he creates in the studio range from majestic anthems to what Depeche Mode might come up with after a bracing blueberry enema or two. Which is to say — all bets are off as John Cale rides the crest of his own fun wave. Even when he brings in Danger Mouse for production assists on "I Wanna Talk 2 U," there is such an original imprint always present that it's like John Cale has fashioned his own genre. The gray skies of a Wales youth have seeped deep within his U.K. soul, and help color everything that comes out.
For those who were at the breaking wave of American rock music in 1965 when the Velvet Underground began, very few have been able to maintain the thrill of discovery like this man. Cale knows his way around a synthesizer, but also knows the human heart beats the strongest. Unafraid to seek out the darker edges of the spirit, he also has an innocence that cannot be stopped. John Cale is perpetually inquisitive, positively inspired and passionately involved in pushing the sonic boundaries every which way. And even when he gets messy, interested listeners are rarely less than thrilled. Winnie the Pooh won't likely be found playing around in Nookie Wood, but there's a good chance Eeyore and Owl might be lurking among the trees, looking for action and a way to convert Christopher Robin to the other side.
David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant. David Byrne has been slaying giants from the start, so it's no surprise he joins St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) for a collusion of the highest order. Hell, they even co-write a song with Walt Whitman; might as well shoot for the top, right? For someone who strives to keep his own interest in music on high alert, Byrne has chosen once again to take a semi-turn with St. Vincent. Sort of, because the music on Love This Giant could easily have been incubated at CBGBs in 1976 or so, and who knows, maybe Talking Heads might never have happened. Then again, Bryne has always had an aura of fate about him, like all his endless artistic overdrive is guided by a hand bigger than his own.
Byrne and St. Vincent are so excitable together it's a match made in Manhattan. Throwing in as a duo to keep the fires burning full-tilt is a horn section sounding somewhat stoked by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, one that pops open the palette on songs like "Who," "Dinner for Two" and "The One Who Broke Your Heart." St. Vincent has an individualistic voice that matches with Bryne's perfectly, and also pushes him to new vocal heights. There is such an aura of liberation on Love This Giant, it's like two explorers found each other wandering in outer space and realized sometimes two minds really are better than one, so signed up for the e-ticket ride together.
David Byrne's legacy casts a long shadow, but the way he handles that should be a lesson for us all, because he basically ignores what's come before and finds a way forward with an inquisitive view to cover new ground. In that way, he's like a modern artist who doesn't put his own paintings on the wall, but instead leaves them blank so not be distracted. Everything he does is about seizing the present for all it's worth, and then adding his own dash to it. With St. Vincent, reinvention never sounded so rewarding. Rock and roll in the 21st century may have lost its business model, but it's definitely found its freedom. Walt Whitman would be proud.
Neil Young, Waging Heavy Peace. Try to imagine climbing into Neil Young's 1959 Continental Lincvolt, and spending the next week driving around America and Canada listening to him tell his life story as he recalls it. There will be amazing revelations, huge memory gaps and, of course, a filtered look at the history of a rock and roll hero. Best of all, though, it will be purely Young's voice that is heard. At the end of the week the head and the soul will be permanently changed, because it's practically unheard of to learn first-hand what really happened, or as best Mr. Soul can recall, at the front line of one of music's most interesting lives. But that's what Waging Heavy Peace is — a long reminisce that is so personal it's a bit like eavesdropping.
The non-linear approach to writing a memoir might at first feel odd, but once Young's tale starts to unfold it's obvious there can be no other way. His mind is so active and involved in such a wide variety of endeavors that to keep them all lined up is a losing battle. From his childhood to early bands, and then breaking the mold of how a rock star continually creates, on through to the fascination with sound quality, Lionel trains, hybrid autos and raising a family with special challenges, Neil Young knows few equals. No one has really done this before, and by the end of the autobiography it feels like no one will again. There is a pioneer drive deeply embedded in the Canadian's DNA, which propels him into all the freewheeling range of projects. Best of all, it's not the outcome that counts but rather the getting there that matters.
The best way to approach the book is like you would a new Neil Young album, with no expectations but plenty of high hopes. Be prepared to let go of any sense of a tidy tale or insider look at backstage brawls. Instead be ready to take a magical mystery tour inside the mind of a man who never settles for the word "no." When Young has an idea, that's when the fun begins. After fascinating books by Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, the bar has been set high for rock biographies. Leave it to Neil Young to take off for new territory, writing a totally moving tale he's nicknamed "A Hippie Dream," proving life really is more than it seems.