It has always been impossible to classify John Cale’s work simply in terms of genre. From his early classical training leading to adventures in minimalist new music with ’60s drone pioneers Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, to the ‘everything from lyrical torch ballads to distorted noise rock’ aesthetic of his collaborations with Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground, it’s easy to see why the most usual and useful epithet applied to him could be ‘Godfather of Avant Garde Punk’. And none of that even touches on the many and varied aspects of his long solo career, and his foundationally influential production work with everyone from Iggy and the Stooges to Happy Mondays, via Nico, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith and Suzanne Vega (!). Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, who rely on their glory years to sustain their careers, Cale has continued to push forward, doing some of his best work since the turn of the millennium.
But what all this emphasis on genre-hopping experimentalism often obscures is that Cale’s work has, with the exception of his instrumental and soundtrack releases, been largely song-orientated, even if his early mission statement was ‘to bend pop out of shape’. Cale has also always made brilliant EPs, instinctively understanding what the format is for, as appreciators of 1977’s Animal Justice or 2003’s 5 Tracks will know. Both of these traits are apparent on Extra Playful, where in the space of just five tracks he explores a variety of different styles, and conceives and realises more ideas in 21 minutes than many musicians half his age manage in ten years. If Radiohead produced this, hipsters’ guides like Pitchfork would be falling over themselves to heap praise on it.
What unifies the five songs here is a common concern with atmospheric textures, and Extra Playful successfully melds the Pro Toolery of 2003’s HoboSapiens with the chuggy attack of 2005’s Black Acetate. Guitar-driven rocker ‘Catastrofuk,’ a kind of rant against commercialism, is a suitably angry kick off, with its fuzzy bass and effects laden guitars. “You can’t take it with you when you go” JC advises. ‘Whaddya Mean By That’ makes use of many of the same musical elements to create a pop ballad, with washes of warm, reverbed synth fleshing out the chorus amid swooning textured loops. The treated guitar solo cross fades from speaker to speaker while electronic drones populate a dreamlike landscape.
There’s a touch of the Cohenesque blasted romanticism here that Cale has dabbled in intermittently over the years – his version of the much covered ‘Hallelujah’ still trumps Jeff Buckley’s and Rufus Wainwright’s takes, in my book. Cale then shifts a gear for the sample laden, funky stomp of ‘Hey Ray’, performed during the encore to the Don’t Look Back outing of Paris 1919 at Primavera last May. Dedicated to collagist and correspondence artist Ray Johnson, who used to send bric-a-brac to friends in the post, and who Cale knew in ’60s New York, it’s an, ahem, extra playful take on ‘60s political conspiracy theories, given an extra layer of faux paranoia by the feedback and loops used. “The Russians are coming/No they’re not…The British are coming/Not again” goes some of the shouted call-and-response. Yet another direction is taken with ‘Pile A L’Heure’, sung in French with various echo effects used. A viola drone with drums backs a sleepy, swampy bassline, imploding at the climax in a dénouement that’s equal parts Hiroshima Mon Amour and ‘Blockbuster’. Rounding out the quintet is the post-punk meets disco of ‘Perfection’. Harking back to 1985’s Artificial Intelligence, it’s ‘80s synth pop with a heavier, more menacing attack.
When I interviewed him in 2006, and asked if he ever intended stopping, Cale replied: “Why, are you gonna stop? Even the government doesn’t want you to retire these days. They’re happy if you keep paying tax.” Extra Playful, then, is about Cale having fun in the studio while continuing to develop his array of musical styles. There’s little sign of him running short of ideas as he embraces new techniques, and it delivers an ideal appetiser for a promised full-length album in 2012, from one of the coolest 69 year olds on the planet.