By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
One of Johnson's signature strengths has always been his ability to mix and match such disparate influences as southern boogie, Hendrixian distortion, Princely funk rock, and Chicago blues in his work. But Naked Soul too often isolates these styles out into their own tunes. Thus, on "Let Me In," Johnson sounds like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, "Walk Like Me Talk" nods toward the Black Crowes, "Shock To The System" toward Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson. "Mr. Heartache" sports a Prince-like arrangement, and "Bring Your Love Down Hard On Me" is a balls-to-wall electric Chicago blues tune that Buddy Guy would be proud to claim. Hendrix is variously invoked for both his "I Don't Live Today" mysticism (on "My Life") and his tender "Little Wing" balladry ("I Miss").
This potpourri is as off-putting as it is impressive. There are dozens of stunning moments here, but the effect is akin to watching some very cool TV while someone else pumps the channel-changer; it's hard for the listener to get a grip on who Jesse Johnson really is. The best clue comes during the instrumental breaks where the guitarist cuts loose, often with a barrage of lightning-quick notes that raise the musical intelligence as well of the intensity of the songs. Otherwise, his bare-naked soul seems pretty ill-defined. (Britt Robson)
Walking On Locusts
When John Cale is in his deep and heavy mode, no one in rock & roll is deeper or 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 that he has something important to say, but 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 all the emotional impact of the Lord Almighty knocking aside the big rock and resurrecting himself.
Given the greatness of his 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 ol' fun side to the guy. This is the John Cale of Wrong Way Up, his 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 packaging trumpets appearances by David Byrne and Velvet Underground's drummer, Maureen Tucker; more noticeable are contributions from jagged-edged guitarist Dave Tronzo and Moroccan drummers Ibrahim and Hassan Hakhmoun. But there's no mistaking that this is Cale's show throughout, from the over-the-top histrionics of "Crazy Egypt" (think of a catchier and less scary "Fear" or "Guts") to the cheerfully self-deprecating "Entre Nous" to "Some Friends"--a touching and quiet rumination on the death of Velvet Underground's guitarist Sterling Morrison. OK, 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 up to make anymore. Reed and Eno sure aren't going to top it. Unlike those celebrated eggheads, Cale still has the ability to surprise. (Jim DeRogatis) CP
John Cale performs Thursday at First Avenue; see A-List, p.37 for details.