Brian Eno, Another Day on Earth
John Cale, Black Acetate
These two geezers have nothing left to prove to anybody; they could have retired to their country chateaus long ago, quite satisfied with their accomplishments. Come to think of it, their careers have been almost exactly parallel. Both first made a name for themselves in a vastly influential band that they left after two albums (Roxy Music for Eno, the Velvet Underground for Cale). In both cases, the band never sounded quite the same again, which is not to say that Roxy and the VU’s later albums were worse — just different. Cale and Eno were X factors who lent unique qualities to Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground and Nico, For Your Pleasure, and White Light/White Heat. Their contributions were musical, certainly — Eno with his synthesizers and tape machines, Cale with his viola, bass, and vocals — but also conceptual. Both are musical strategists with adventurous, and therefore restless, minds. This explains why they left their bands so soon, although the heavy shadows cast by Bryan Ferry and Lou Reed may have had something to do with it.
In the 70s, both Eno and Cale made a series of acclaimed solo albums while also finding time to produce landmark records by other people. Cale specialized in debut albums, which he produced for the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, and, strangely enough, Squeeze. Eno, of course, produced Devo’s first album and beloved trilogies by David Bowie and Talking Heads. In the 80s, Eno made a bazillion dollars by producing huge-selling albums for U2, while Cale kind of dropped off the radar (mine anyway). According to the All-Music Guide, he released a bunch of albums that I’ve never heard — they could be great for all I know — and produced Happy Mondays’ Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out).
In 1990 the two men, who had previously guested on each other’s solo albums, released a collaboration called Wrong Way Up — an excellent, if a tad slick, pop album that never got the attention it deserved. Around that same time Cale made the similarly underrated Songs for Drella with Lou Reed, and Eno released the uneven Nerve Net, which was the last thing I bought by either one of them.
Then, next thing you know, it’s 2005. How’d that happen?
When I heard last summer that Eno was releasing a new album of vocal songs, his first in a long time, I got moderately excited. I’ve always loved his voice; it’s technically not the greatest, but it has a certain character that I find friendly and appealing. And sure enough, Eno does sing on Another Day on Earth, but despite my best efforts, I’ve never quite fallen for this album. It’s perfectly fine, and has some great songs like “Bottomliners” and “Just Another Day,” but it’s hard not to compare it to, say, Taking Tiger Mountain. Which is unfair. Asking Eno to make another Tiger Mountain is like asking Bowie to make another Ziggy, Bob Dylan to make another Blonde on Blonde, or the Stones to make another Exile on Main Street. It can’t be done.
So comparisons aside, my complaint about Another Day is that it’s too clean, too digital. It makes one nostalgic for the gloriously analog days of yore. Which brings me to John Cale’s 2005 release, Black Acetate. Cale’s always been a contrary character, by turns lyrical and abrasive, classically trained but with a fondness for, as he called it on 1975’s Slow Dazzle, “Dirty Ass Rock’n’Roll.” On Black Acetate he uses all the latest technology — I’m told he learned Pro Tools in San Francisco, at the same place Cecil did — but ends up sounding wonderfully scruffy and retro.
Like Eno, Cale doesn’t have the greatest voice, and he does strange things with it here: the falsetto on “Outta the Bag,” the choked, raspy vocal on “In a Flood.” But somehow or other it all works — for me, anyway. Your mileage may vary; but how you feel about this album will pretty much depend on how you’ve felt about Cale all along. At 63 he’s the same curmudgeon he was at 30, and Black Acetate can legitimately take its place alongside Fear or Helen of Troy. So give Grandpa his props.