Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground (1969)

In their brief career, New York’s Velvets created four albums, each with its own distinct character. Their iconic 1967 debut The Velvet Underground and Nico, with its classic Warhol “peel the banana” cover, has been widely canonized as the origin of anything to do with alternative music. Its groundbreaking cacophonous experimentation was layered with the wailings of the thickly-accented German chanteuse Nico, but also contained the twisted masterpieces “Heroin”, “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Venus in Furs”. Its follow-up, 1968’s White Light/White Heat quite literally shed its predecessors Technicolor sheen: a completely black cover and the flipside featuring a high-contrast black and white shot of the now four-piece band. In just six tracks, it pushed the brash sound of Nico to new extremes, creating a minimalist, proto-punk sound in its sonic nihilism. Loaded, their last album as a functioning band, as well as the last featuring Lou Reed, was purposely “poppy”, “loaded” with potential hits. It proved a fitting conclusion to their four-year career.

The Velvet Underground then, falls somewhere in the middle. It is the least distinct of the four albums, lacking a clear character (some would say “gimmick”), and not spawning any songs that are considered Underground classics. Its strength lies in its unity as an album, both song-wise and tone-wise. It has a subdued quality, a tranquil, understated beauty, particularly compared to its two predecessors. This new direction immediately becomes clear upon first listen; newcomer Doug Yule’s frail, tender voice is put to good use on the opening track “Candy Says”. This is his only solo vocal appearance on this album, but he would take a more prominent role in Loaded, eventually becoming a one-man-band for the shameless, post-Reed Squeeze. The subject matter of this opening song is classic Underground, explaining why this is one of the few tracks to have a longer life in Lou Reed’s live repertoire. Dealing with the same “Candy” as “Candy Darling” from Reed’s “Take A Walk On The Wild Side”, the song is a loving, tragic tribute. Particularly poignant is the following rendition from Lou Reed’s 2006 performance of his 1973 album Berlin. It features Reed singing with Antony (of And The Johnsons fame), adding to the song’s haunting quality.

Illustration 1: Lou Reed and Antony Hegarty duet on "Candy Says", from the 2007 film "Berlin" by Julian Schnabel, documenting Reed's 2006 performances of the eponymous album.

“What Goes On” is another standout track, an organ-driven song with frantic guitar riffing. It is one of the few up-tempo songs on the album, but this is hardly the thrashing of White Light/White Heat. It keeps the delicacy of the album intact through its modest arrangement and relatively untreated lead guitars. The next few tracks exemplify a new minimalism, allowing for the first time for Reed’s voice and lyrics to take centre stage. Transcending the frantic wailing about drugs and dealers, songs like “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus”, with its harmonising are almost tender love songs. “Beginning To See The Light” is more traditional, that is to say, amplified Velvet Underground, though of a looser and more sloppy sort. “I’m Set Free” forms an epic closer to this suite, paving the way for some more experimental tracks. “The Murder Mystery” which features the whole band in a simultaneous faux news-reading, recalls the spoken-word “The Gift” from White Light. It even features a campy pun: “Shaving my head’s made me bolder”. The final track, an almost throwaway number sung by drummer Maureen Tucker (presumably an attempt at a “Ringo Track” like the Beatles regularly inflicted on the world), keeps the loose and relatively light atmosphere of the album. Despite her charming New York accent, Tucker is like a latter-day Meg White in that she can’t really sing, or drum for that matter. This makes the Chili Peppers’ singer Anthony Kiedis a fine choice for a cover artist:

Illustration 2: Drugs may have been involved: Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante in Amsterdam, 1991. Inexplicably wearing what appears to be an apron. And not much else.

Through its lacking of instant classics, The Velvet Underground is bound to be snowed under by its more influential predecessors and its poppy successor. In its laid back songs and quiet atmosphere though, the more sensitive side of Reed and the band is brought forward. For those turned off by the more hit-and-miss, abrasive works by The Velvet Underground, this album offers a solid album with delicate moments that anticipates some of the more mature rock albums of the 1970s.

Illustration 3: A Cheeky Lou, shortly before becoming Creepy Lou