In 2003 John Cale returned from a self-imposed, nearly ten-year exile from pop/rock with the well-received HoboSapiens. The relatively short period it took to follow that album with this one therefore heralds a full-blown revival for the ex-Velvet Underground founding member. Cale approaches this album differently though. Where the previous work found him immersed in Pro Tools, Black Acetate is a more traditional if just as insular project. Joining Cale is Herb Graham, Jr., a multi-instrumentalist and co-producer who contributes to nearly every track and seems to be as integral to the songs as Cale himself. A few guests drop by to add textures such as cello and backing vocals, but generally this is a two-person album. As such, its production is lean, mean, taut, and as straightforward as Cale has been in a decade. Thick, grungy, often sludgy guitars dominate the claustrophobic landscape, yet the approach is tempered by Cale's superb sense of dynamics. He interrupts the chords of "Woman" to add distorted vocals that alter the doomy mood without lightening it. The straight-ahead rocker "Turn the Lights On" shifts on a hard rock riff that is simplistic but not facile. At 63, Cale's dusky, distinctive vocals remain strong and clear, and he sounds thoroughly engaged by this material. Just when you think you have him figured out, Cale twists out of your grasp, adding avant-garde touches or, as in the case of the opening "Outta the Bag," falsetto vocals and a funk beat. The electronic percussion takes some getting used to, but it meshes with live drums for an otherworldly effect that works to the album's advantage. Every track throbs with its own personality, yet the disc flows remarkably well despite the musical left turns. Ballads such as "Gravel Drive" find Cale lying back, yet the intensity of his voice and lyrics is far from easy listening. The hard-rocking "Perfect" with its classic lick and singalong chorus should find its way onto radio in a more, well, perfect world. This is as direct as Cale has been since his Island label days, but that in no way infers that he has sold out. On the contrary, Black Acetate is a look back as well as a courageous attempt to incorporate elements of funk, rock, and avant-garde together with one ear toward the marketplace and the other ensconced in the experimentalism that marks Cale's best work. It's a brave, unpredictable, and iconoclastic release that, along with 2005's HoboSapiens, proves that John Cale is one of rock's most durable and compelling musicians whose best work just might lie ahead of him.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz