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A Thing Of Rare Beauty
on 22 August 2014
Much has, of course, been written about John Cale’s 1973 masterpiece, not least around its many and complex themes (political, artistic, literary, personal, etc), but nothing should be allowed to detract from (or blur) the fact that with Paris 1919 Wales’ finest penned an idiosyncratically sublime set of songs, full of (often subtle) melody and highly poetic (though often obscure) lyrics. It’s also an album that almost defies genre classification – often described as 'baroque pop’ – with a whole range of apparent influences, through 60s bands such as The Beatles, Beach Boys and Kinks, plus the obvious feed from The Velvets’ more ethereal moments, but also (for me, at least) shades of Neil Young (the heavenly The Endless Plain of Fortune could have appeared on After The Goldrush) and, more recently, even Nick Cave and (in terms of the lyrical sophistication and source referencing) Luke Haines.
And what a curious band line-up Cale assembled. Little Feat’s Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward on guitar and drums respectively – a nice fit for the album’s relatively laid-back feel, take George’s slide guitar backing during the start of the Dylan Thomas-esque personal tale in Child’s Christmas In Wales – but, perhaps most surprisingly The Crusaders’ 'jazz-funk’ man Wilton Felder on bass. Nonetheless, the album’s sound is seamless, from the jaunty 'la-la-la’ pop of the album’s title song (with its vibrant UCLA Symphony Orchestra string backing), through the rockier sound of Macbeth and the quirky Graham Greene, to the haunting effects of Half Past France or Hanky Panky Nohow – the latter, whose apparent light hearted flippancy disguises the song’s darker undercurrents ('Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door’) – providing a deceptive quality which permeates the album.
The 2006 Rhino re-release also provides 12 additional tracks – alternate versions of all nine original album songs, plus third versions of each of the title song plus an instrumental version (unlisted) of Macbeth (on which George really excels on slide guitar). Perhaps most importantly though is Burned Out Affair, a tenth song originally intended for inclusion on the album, but dropped – inexplicably, as the song is as poignant an elegy for childhood as you are likely to hear anywhere.