Walking on Locusts
When John Cale is in his deep and heavy mode, no one in rock 'n' roll is deeper and heavier. His old partner Lou Reed has to dress like a college professor, read his lyrics from a music stand and write dry, boring pieces for The New Yorker to convince us he has something important to say. All Cale has to do is open his mouth and unleash that sonorous voice with its regal Welsh accent.
The classic example is his narration on "The Gift," from the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, but for more recent proof, just check out Julian Schnabel's film Basquiat. Timed to the painter's death, Cale's reading of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has the emotional impact of the Lord Almighty knocking aside the big rock and resurrecting Hisself. Given the greatness of Cale's somber and serious persona (summed up quite nicely on 1992's live retrospective Fragments of a Rainy Season), it's easy to forget that there's a more playful, jovial, plain old fun side to the guy. This is the John Cale of Wrong Way Up, his joyful and bouncy 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno. The battle of egos behind the scenes in the making of that album obscured who did what, and Eno claimed most of the credit.
But now Walking on Locusts, a long-awaited sequel of sorts, arrives to show that Cale is as capable at crafting innovative, upbeat pop music as he is at recording noisy experiments or mournful dirges. With its sly, sexy, exotic groove, flirtatious female backing vocals and Cajun-flavored violin parts by the Soldier String Quartet, the opening track, "Dancing Undercover," sets the tone for much of what follows. "Thanks for thinking of me/And thanks for the flowers," Cale sings with a wink and just the slightest hint of menace. "Deadly nightshade is beautiful/I could stare at them for hours."
The cover art trumpets appearances by David Byrne and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker; more noticeable are contributions from jagged-edged guitarist Dave Tronzo and Moroccan drummers Ibrahim and Hassan Hahkmoun. But there's no mistaking that this is Cale's show throughout, from the over-the-top histrionics of "Crazy Egypt" to the cheerfully self-deprecating "Entre Nous" to "Some Friends," a touching and quiet rumination on the death of Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison. Okay, so Cale does get a bit serious on that last one, but for the most part, Walking on Locusts is the sort of deceptively breezy and powerfully endearing album that most of Cale's peers can't free themselves to make anymore. Reed and Eno sure aren't going to top it. Unlike those celebrated eggheads, Cale still has the ability to surprise.
Just Add Ice
"The V-roys are an important band. Believe that."
So states producer/mentor Steve Earle in this album's liner notes, and who are you to argue? This Knoxville, Tennessee, quartet is the first band to come out on Earle's E Squared label, and like the hard-core troubadour himself, the V-roys aim to erase the lines that separate rock, hillbilly and country along Nashville's famed (and aptly named) Division Street.
The V-roys rock with the conviction of an English pub rock/New Wave band and write with the sage wisdom of the Flying Burrito Brothers--two grams Parsons to one gram Parker. Despite the Southern twang, Just Add Ice also boasts such unlikely mixers as surf-band hand claps, psychedelic backward guitars on "Guess I Know I'm Right," and disintegration blues on "Cold Beer Hello." This last free-for-all features drummer Jeff Bills playing the most out-of-tune guitar solo this side of avant-garde experimentalist Eugene Chadbourne.
If you treasured that all-too-brief period when the Stones (read: Keith Richards) were under the direct influence of the grievous angel, cue up "Kick Me Around," which staggers forward like a great lost track from side four of Exile on Main Street. Even the most casual throwaway lines ("In the time that it takes to crush this cigarette, I'll forget all about you") will resonate long after last call.
Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers
Gonna Take You Downtown
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Without a doubt, this Kinder, Louisiana, combo is the greatest zydeco outfit to emerge since the mid-Eighties death of Clifton Chenier, the genre's forever master. Beau Jocque sings in a guttural growl and plays the push-button accordion like some kind of virtuoso bayou swamp beast, and no one can ride a groove longer and harder than the Hi-Rollers. Sadly, however, album number four finds Jocque and band monkeying around with the sound that made their first three Rounder sets so essential. Guitarist Russell Dorion whacks off endlessly on numerous solos, and Jocque has taken to covering the likes of War ("The Cisco Kid," not as bad as you'd think) and Bob Dylan ("Knockin' on Heaven's Door," exactly as bad as you'd think).
There's some good, smoking stuff here, with a few Jocque originals that extend the legacy of zydeco and rock like mad. Judging by the covers, though, Beau don't know his own considerable strength. You shouldn't make the same mistake; snap up last year's live set, Git It, Beau Jocque!, instead.