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Have you ever had one of those sticky cocktail shooters where each colourful liquor is layered on top of the last until you get a little potted rainbow of glorious alcoholic physics? At its best Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, John Cale’s playfully odd fifteenth solo album, feels like that, with layers of droning viola and guitar giving shape and colour to squishy, processed beats.
Whether intentionally or not he’s taking sonic cues from ‘I Wanna Talk To U’, the largely improvised Danger Mouse collaboration which opens the record. It’s tight, oddball pop reminiscent of DM’s work with Damon Albarn on The Good, The Bad and The Queen and Gorillaz’ Demon Days, and sets up a collection which shares more DNA musically with Albarn’s post-millenial oeuvre than with much of Cale's own, (though he’s dabbled in so much across 40 years nothing ever feels a true departure.)
This a step away from the brassy rock of 2005’s blackAcetate, and most of the record is built on a sort of wonky hip-hop backbone, though Cale’s toplines are a long way from that genre’s conventions. It works brilliantly on a trio of songs at the centre of the album: ‘Vampire Cafe’ is best, all squelchy beats and smudgy bass coloured by melodica and distorted vocals. It’s sad and strange and brilliant. Then there’s ‘Mary’, a minor key oddity of scraped acoustic strings and boom-tish drum machine with Cale crooning that you “don’t have to call him Mary”, or indeed any of a list of names male and female. He’s “fine with that” apparently. You haven’t got a scooby-doo what it’s about, but it’s a wonderful piece of music. ‘Mothra’ completes the triptych, a dense, jaunty electronic number with, of all things, vocoded vocals. It’s funny and weird, and again, it’s brilliant.
Sadly little else shines quite as brightly - on the far end of the scale title track ‘Nookie Wood’ aims to be the impish heart of the record, but ends up a little bit novelty and a tiny bit grating. Most songs float between the two extremes, always sonically interesting but never quite engaging emotionally.
Most impressive of all is Cale’s singing voice, which is maturing wonderfully. Some singers, (Johnny Cash and Gil Scott-Heron are good examples) simply suit old age, and Cale can count his self among them. Always expressive, tender and wry where needed, it’s a constant delight even when the tunes themselves feel slightly lacking.
With a body of work as strong and as fascinating as John Cale’s even the lesser entries are worth a little of your time. Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood isn’t quite from his top drawer, but when that drawer has already yielded 2003’s excellent HoboSapiens, 1973’s utter masterpiece Paris1919 and, ya know, The Velvet Underground & Nico, he can perhaps be excused for rummaging round his less impressive furniture every once in a while.
Nookie Wood... wasn’t exactly found down the back of the sofa either and still packs enough progression, beauty and leftfield charm to ensure the ex-Velvets man retains his membership to that dwindling club of 40-and-50-year veterans (alongside Messrs Walker, Reed, Waits and Eno. McCartney was Blackballed after ‘Mull of Kintyre’,) pushing forward, challenging themselves and resisting the lucrative pull of stale nostalgia.
An enjoyable offering from a genuine treasure.
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