March 13, 2003

Ed's Underground: John Cale & Terry Riley

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In all the talk of the Velvet Underground’s legacy, the one aspect of their history that often gets overlooked is the band’s tight connections with the early minimalist movement, particularly through founding member John Cale, who played with La Monte Young and Tony Conrad in the former’s Theater of Eternal Music. After the Velvets split up, Cale returned to his roots with this record, which pairs him with Terry Riley, who, along with the aforementioned Young and Conrad, was a founding father of minimalism.

However, Riley’s work — which largely focused on rhythmic drones and strong melodies — was a much better complement to Cale’s avant-pop tendencies than the atonal approach of Cale’s earlier collaborators. The two musicians both play a variety of instruments here, on a set of four extended instrumentals and one brief pop song. The non-vocal tracks tend to be more in line with Riley’s style than Cale’s, but both of their contributions are essential to the record’s unique style.

The most important element that Cale brings to the table is a strong rock influence, particularly in his muscular acoustic guitar. The instrumentals feature a beautiful blend of sounds, creating a tapestry that is somehow both dense and spacious at the same time. On “Ides of March,” a pair of playful piano parts trade off as jazzy drums fill the background. Like Riley’s landmark composition “In C,” it’s deceptively simple, but the steady accumulation of tension over the piece’s 11 minutes makes it gripping rather than boring.

The rest of the album follows this formula — with uniformly lovely results — the exception being Cale’s lone writing credit, “The Soul of Patrick Lee,” a stately pop tune similar in tone to Cale’s own Paris 1919. The album is an unjustly overlooked high point for both Cale and Riley, as well as being a historically important fusion between rock and post-classical composition that manages to retain the most forward-looking and exciting elements of the two styles.

Archived article by Ed Howard