Critic’s Notebook: Two John Cale Programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

January 21st, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

John Cale performed from “Paris 1919” with the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A drone, sustained and hypnotic, opened John Cale’s first program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico,” on Wednesday. It enveloped Nico’s “Frozen Warnings,” sung by Mr. Cale and Meshell Ndegeocello, to start a concert of Nico’s songs featuring a dozen guest performers. Another drone — Mr. Cale’s sawing, insistent electric viola part in the Velvet Underground’s sadomasochistic “Venus in Furs” (written by Lou Reed) — ended his second program there on Friday (repeated Saturday), featuring Mr. Cale’s own songs backed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, including a full performance of his 1973 album, “Paris 1919.”

The drone-to-drone symmetry was probably no coincidence. For the Academy series, billed as “When Past and Future Collide,” Mr. Cale, 70, was revisiting and reworking parts of a long and mutable career. His fascination with the drone — as a foundation, as a provocation, as something to get lost in — has been one recurring motif. There are others, conflicting and combining: stomping rock, meticulous chamber music, Celtic modes, improvisational noise, bleak cynicism, pervasive paranoia and glimpses of kindliness.

In the 1960s Mr. Cale, who was born in Wales and came to New York, moved from avant-garde classical music, working with the pioneering Minimalist composers La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, into rock as a founder of the Velvet Underground, the fountainhead of uncompromising, primitivist, experimental art-rock. On his own since the 1970s, as both producer and solo act, he has moved at whim among elegance and brutality, mystery and bluntness. The two concerts could barely contain his multifariousness.

The Nico tribute merged Mr. Cale’s imperatives with the songwriting catalog of Nico, the German model-turned-singer who delivered three songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album and went on to a fitful solo career writing eerie, cryptic songs that she sang in a melancholy deadpan. On her albums “The Marble Index” (1969) and “Desertshore” (1970), Mr. Cale’s stark, windswept productions and arrangements were usually built around the undulating patterns Nico played on a harmonium; adding austere string arrangements or keyboards, they suspended the songs far away from rock or pop. Their 1985 collaboration, “Camera Obscura,” brought in more percussion, but was no less somber.

The night before Mr. Cale’s Nico tribute, on Tuesday at the Cutting Room, Tammy Faye Starlite revived her cabaret revue “Chelsea M?dchen,” doing a careful Nico impersonation in song and speech, but she sang only one of Nico’s own compositions.

Mr. Cale’s tribute went deeper and wider. He skipped the familiar — the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days” — and among the guest singers, only Sharon Van Etten approached Nico’s “Falconer” with the dark stoicism of Nico’s own versions.

His other guests, and the new arrangements, extrapolated from Nico’s songs, bringing out the darkness and volatility that Nico held in. Peaches gave drum-machine momentum to “M?tterlein”; Kim Gordon and Bill Nace turned “It Was a Pleasure Then” into a two-guitar noise immersion. Ms. Ndegeocello and Joan as Police Woman summoned torch-song intensity in “Afraid” and “My Heart Is Empty”; and Alison Mosshart (from the Kills and the Dead Weather) stoked “Tanamore” and “Fearfully in Danger” into gothic incantations. Mercury Rev found a psychedelic haze in “Evening of Light”; Yeasayer brought an insistent synthesizer hook to “Janitor of Lunacy.” Mr. Cale’s ear was clearly reshaping the songs, keeping them on edge, far from nostalgia.

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