John Cale's first solo album, released two years after his bitter break with the Velvet Underground, was something of a shock for those who remembered his final contributions to the band on White Light/White Heat. Vintage Violence, sporting a cover showing Cale staring impassively from behind an opaque mask, was a much more subdued affair than any of his recordings with the VU, sensitive not only to pop sensibilities but to pop history. Even if his notions of "pop sensibilities" were a little too esoteric for heavy rotation, there was no denying that the full orchestra on "Big White Cloud" (arranged and conducted by Cale), the pedal steel guitar on "Bring It On Up," or the sweet melodies of "Gideon's Bible" were nothing like Cale had done before, either as stringed-instrument cleanup batter for the Velvets or in his classically trained avant-garde work with LaMonte Young. From the start, Vintage Violence was designed to be a pop album through and through.
Thirty years later, Cale admits as much, with a couple of surprising influences stuck in the observations: "I tried to imitate my favorite songwriters of the time, the Bee Gees or whatever. I was out to discover the world of pop songwriting, and I thought tunes were the answer." Vintage Violence, the fruit of that exploration, was recorded at whip-crack speed over three days, with members of Garland Jeffreys' Grinderswitch serving as the house band.
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As experiments go, Cale's solo debut has aged remarkably well for at least one notable reason: Shot through the lush arrangements and production are elements that sour the mix just enough to make Vintage Violence a disturbing record, one whose imagery lingers long after the music has stopped. The short, perfect "Amsterdam," for example, is narrated by a man who's watched his female friend return from the city bearing some change inside her, something she has neither the capacity nor the desire to name: "She says she fell in love/With men who knew the way to treat a lady/But it's not her fault/She's not the one to blame/Come down, come down." Performed solo, with Cale on acoustic guitar and overdubbed vocals, this is probably the most haunting moment on the record (Cale still includes it in his live shows), but it's by no means the only one. The cool repetition of Robert Frost's phrase "Good fences make good neighbors" on "Gideon's Bible" is another, as is the knife-twister "Hello there, everybody/What's the best way out of here?" on the opening track. Clearly, Cale was proceeding into new territory with his guard up.
Vintage Violence highlights Cale's mastery of the pop form like none of his subsequent releases, which tended to be either more musically experimental or less crafty in their pop-oriented aspects. On Vintage Violence, he gets it absolutely right: Verse-chorus-bridge combinations are all over the album in both expected and exploded forms, proving Cale couldn't resist tinkering confidently with the format he'd chosen. 1970 also saw the release of the final, troubled VU album Loaded, a record that yielded two undeniable rock classics in "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll," but pound for pound, Cale's release was and remains the more cohesive and satisfying statement. The extra tracks on Sony's rerelease, an alternate version of the closing workout "Fairweather Friend" and an extended viola drone called "Wall," are both from the Vintage Violence sessions, but apart from adding a bit of historical interest, they ultimately don't contribute much to the album that you won't hear in its original sequencing. That's not a complaint -- for my money, the more Cale the better -- but Vintage Violence is strong enough to stand on its own, as written, even three decades on. For a medium as ephemeral as pop music is supposed to be, that's a rare achievement.