John Cale and Priya Thomas at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Sunday to Tuesday (November 13-15), 8:30 pm. $25. 416-588-0307.
John Cale isn't the sort to dwell on the past. Even though he's put out more than 20 albums since leaving the Velvet Underground, his performances almost always focus on his most recent work, much to the disappointment of his long-time fans. The way the assembled horde roared with delight when Cale picked up his electric viola to saw through Venus In Furs at his show at New York's Avalon last year, it was clear no one would've complained if he'd decided to devote the whole show to variations on the Velvets' back catalogue.
But that's old news to Cale. In fact, so is the elaborately arranged progressive pop material from last year's HoboSapiens album, which appeared to be the only thing that interested him at the Avalon performance. Cale's bold new work, Black Acetate, has taken him in the opposite direction.
Instead of meticulously configured orchestrations weaving carefully laid melodies and counter-melodies, Cale decided to scrape away a few layers of complexity and return to his minimalist roots, experimenting with tone and repetition with surprising results.
Evidently, it wasn't a chance reacquaintance with an old favourite by LaMonte Young, Alban Berg, Anton Webern or even Colin McPhee that caused the abrupt change in direction it was a much more recent classic.
"Drop It Like It's Hot, by Snoop and Pharrell," says Cale in his proper Welsh brogue, leaving me fighting back laughter. "That song really turned my head around. There are only five elements to the whole thing really simple things like tongue-clicking which make it very effective.
"There's another song that Pharrell did where he uses a spray can as a rhythmic device. That was the first one that pinned my ears back. As I listened to it, I thought, 'This is more than just a single, it's a comment on the whole millieu, a cultural statement as well.'"
While the 63-year-old Cale hasn't suddenly turned b-boy, he clearly pays close attention to innovative concepts that seep into to the musical mainstream. It just so happens that some of the most exciting work reaching a wide audience is being done by hiphop producers.
"You've got to listen to whoever the most creative people are. I mean, there are some perfectly good producers doing rock music Nigel Godrich is very clever and does great work but the stuff Pharrell has done with Snoop and that Dre did with 50 Cent is really amazing.
"They've got a lot of things going on, and they work with a very broad palette of sounds and structures," he continues. "It's more than what we think of as hiphop."
Knowing what tunes Cale has been bumping certainly helps make more sense of Black Acetate, particularly his singing in falsetto on pounding opening track Outta The Bag, the pimped-out Brotherman and the stripped-bare rhythm track, Hush, which is actually the album's centerpiece. He was obviously determined to put some fun in his funky experiment.
"Oh yeah, there are lots of goofy things on there that people might find funny, and they were meant to be lighthearted," Cale agrees. "Out of the Bag isn't serious at all, nor is Brotherman, but I'm not sure how they'll be perceived.
"I realize some people will have a very different interpretation, but I can't go chasing after them. I've got to keep moving forward and hope that they'll get it eventually."
As for the current tour, expect to hear a lot of songs from Black Acetate and more guitar playing by Cale than you've ever imagined.
"There's only one live song on the album, Sold-Motel, and that's the band playing with me on these dates. It's very much a straight-up rock show. Each night I'm playing three different guitars both acoustic and electric and that's a lot for me. I've been a little obsessed with the guitar lately.
Any Velvet Underground tunes?
"Just one," groans Cale. "And I'm getting bored of it, so I may drop it soon. But it works onstage with the rest of the set, so we'll keep it in for now."