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Drowning in Pop 

Wednesday, Oct 23 1996
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John Cale, Red House Painters
At the Fillmore, Tuesday, Oct. 15.

Before show's start at the Fillmore, rows of chandeliers hung purpled by house lights -- tacky upon gaudy -- giving the impression that the concert hall and all of its patrons were immersed in grape soda. Pretty, but more important, appropriate, since those who came to lap from the bowl of one of rock's elder weirdos, John Cale, ended up tumbling in headlong and drowning in pop. Most did, however, seem to enjoy their suffocation: no La Brea Tar Pit saber-toothed struggling, no reluctant additions to the fossil record, save perhaps Cale himself.

But then, the crowd, like the music, seemed rather straight: plenty of Marion the Librarians, and those were just the guys. The smell of pot smoke, much less of Philip Morris fumes, was scarce. Before the show started, a heavyset fellow with a clipboard asked the crowd to step out into the lobby should they feel the urge to light up; the bands had asked not to be smogged in. A stool sat by the center microphone. Hmm. Delicate vocal cords and tired legs. Obviously, a "real" vocalist was about to take the stage. The occasional ember glowed in the crowd nonetheless, darting furtive from hip to mouth.

I was pleasantly surprised by Red House Painters, who seemed, when playing live, to actually Have a Pair, if stool-mounted, along with vocalist/guitarist Mark Kozelek. To say their records often sound candy-assed is to suggest that some part of them might actually be edible. Still, live, they were much better. The first tune built on a slow beat, a Spartan minor chord structure, and guitar volume swells. In other words, the exact sort of stuff deemed extraterrestrial in the time of the Velvet Underground. Now, however, it's all too soothing on the ear, sounding unfortunately at times like a histrionic species of lullaby. Any show where the vocals emanating from the center-stage stool have a broader blast radius than the other instruments -- including, for Christ's sake, the drums -- is more about folk than rock. (Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.)

The chords, the counterpoint between the guitars, and the vocals were all rather pretty, if in keeping with the Pop Melancholy Plan of the last 15 years. Better yet, the Painters showed proficiency at pulling off key modulations without sounding as abrupt or hokey as Meat Loaf, and that takes talent. I was especially pleased with those moments where the freak factor took over, and the Painters didn't seem to know how weird they were being. Key word: seem. They could have been kidding when an imitation of a pining hen on Kozelek's part complemented the dramatic crescendo in the first number. He also demonstrated an ability to make cracks between songs. "It's nice to be home," he said, referring to a recent tour. "It's nice to play in front of an audience, too." When the crowd shouted out requests, he reprimanded them for choosing the worst Painters songs. "We just played that one," Kozelek sighed to one request. "Where were you? We played 'War Pigs,' all that shit." If only they had rehashed some Black Sabbath. Their cover of the Cars' "All Mixed Up" read as irreverent, though it may well be impossible to pull off performing the songs of Ric Ocasek with any degree of earnestness.

Kozelek's stage manner reeked of tour burnout -- at the end of one song, I heard him noisily unplug his guitar before the applause started -- but he may recover. John Cale, on the other hand, is never coming back. He may well be one of the weariest performers alive, even if he isn't aware of it. Yes: Cale at one point was that very sort of vital freak who keeps things moving in rock, perhaps due to sketchy ability, perhaps to "vision"; but even these sorts have always been surpassed by more enterprising freaks. Cale's high-water mark for weirdness was submerged by events, oh, 20 years ago -- and as far as the evening's performance was concerned, Cale was navigating in a bathysphere. Had you never heard the Velvet Underground's atonal rock-outs on White Light/White Heat, or understood just how upsetting songs about heroin and sadomasochism once were, the music that Cale and his band of pickup musicians presented at the Fillmore would have seemed only the product of any mediocre popsmith, and not an extended death knell for Cale's oeuvre. As experimental as "Big, Bad Leroy Brown," as wild as the Association, with the animal cunning of easy listening, this stuff sucked.

I rooted for Cale, but rooting didn't help. The fact that I spent more energy trying to determine the gender of the cymbal-concealed drummer than listening to the music indicates a definite paucity of hooks. I was thinking of Maureen Tucker, who almost escaped a post-VU music "career" unscathed. (The late Sterling Morrison beat her hands down; he shrugged off rock to become an English professor, while she released solo albums.) Tucker played on Walking on Locusts, Cale's latest, but the drummer wasn't she. Her absence only gave her credit. (Though even Cale hasn't bogged down in the self-caricature of Lou Reed.) "Here's to you," Cale said between songs, dressed in baggy, checkered shorts and toasting the audience with his bottle of mineral water. "This song's in B-flat," he said when introducing another, flipping through his musical notation. There was nothing wrong with the music -- and that was the whole problem. Not only could you name the key, you could predict the changes -- a hallmark of pure pop. Sure, there were tritones and diminished fifths (harmonics and intervals classically referred to as "the devil in music," providing all manner of tunes their weirdness) in the compositions, and oddball lyrics: "The satellite dish will beam you through -- entre nous/ The comedy begins Shakespeare at the zoo -- entre nous." But the bloodline for this sort of "weirdness" is thinning almost as fast as the crowd at the Fillmore was halfway through. I thinned right along with them. I overheard someone say (regarding Cale): "He's definitely weird, but his weirdness isn't helping." Or not anymore.

About The Author

Michael Batty

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