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Helen of Troy – John Cale

John Cale Helen of Troy

Helen Of Troy

(1975), 7.5/10
Helen of Troy is in the vein of Cale’s previous record Slow Dazzle, but stronger and nastier. Working with a primary core of musicians – guitarist Chris Spedding, bassist Pat Donaldson, and drummer Timmi Donald – Cale’s approach to songcraft was becoming more improvisational. At the same time, there’s more noticeable orchestration than the previous albums, with Robert Kirby, who also worked on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, adding strings and choir. A choir adds drama to ‘My Maria’, while the orchestra punctuates the title track and adds depth to the torch song ‘I Keep A Close Watch’. Like Slow Dazzle, Helen Of Troy is eclectic in mood, possibly a fair reflection of Cale’s mental state at the time, although the liner notes point out that the studio renditions were merely working sketches of the “full blown psychodramas” that the songs became on tour.

On the gentle side, the most notable song is ‘I Keep A Close Watch’, which Cale unsuccessfully wished Sinatra to cover; it’s not difficult to imagine it becoming a standard if it wasn’t buried in the middle of a semi-obscure mid-1970s album by a weird arty psychotic dude who used to be in the Velvet Underground. Cale also covers the Modern Lovers’ ‘Pablo Picasso’ – he produced their debut album – and his take is more venomous than Richman’s wide eyed naivety. Even nastier is ‘Leaving It Up To You’, which was removed from later versions of the album for its Charles Manson references (“I know we could all feel safe/Like Sharon Tait”). ‘Baby, What You Want Me To Do?’ is a surprisingly effective blues rocker, while ‘Sudden Death’ is a dramatic closer with its foreboding piano runs and organ swells. The first half is weaker than the second; ‘Cable Hogue’ sounds much better in its acoustic reading on Fragments Of A Rainy Season.

Helen Of Troy was Cale’s last studio album for Island Records, and his next album wouldn’t be released until 1979, an album of new material recorded live in concert.

 

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