Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground

Release Dates: March 1969

★★★★★ Tracks:

Candy Says
What Goes On
Pale Blue Eyes
That's the Story of My Life
After Hours

While the first two records could be the bombastic, drug induced Friday and Saturday nights that made up the The Velvet Underground’s lives for many years, the third album would be the quiet, reflective Sunday Morning that followed. It’s folksy, hushed, and finds Lou Reed at his most introspective. He and the band appeared to grow tired of the partying, the New York social life, the drugs, Warhol, and were ready to move on. With John Cale booted from the band and a focus on new musical direction, move on the Velvet Underground did. This was now a vehicle where Reed drove his masterful songwriting unilaterally. They added Doug Yule to flesh out the bass, keyboard, and additional vocals, and he does a fantastic job.

While I prefer the louder, livelier version of the Velvet Underground to the quieter brand, you can’t argue with the great songs that are included here. “Pale Blue Eyes” might just be the prettiest damn Reed song ever recorded, and “After Hours,” sung by drummer Maureen Tucker, is so innocent and sugary sweet you can’t help but grin like a kid for the entirety of its two minute length. “What Goes On” gives us a little taste of the rock’n’roll we loved so much from the first record and we get the experimental edge of the second in "The Murder Mystery," another long, spoken word jam.

For those of us who are not religious and prefer it be left out of the music we consume, the middle part of The Velvet Underground can be a bit challenging. Lou Reed, tired of his lifestyle choices over the majority of the 60’s, was turning to Jesus when he began the songwriting. While the instrumentation to “Jesus,” “Beginning to See the Light,” and “I’m Set Free,” are up there with the best of the Velvet Underground tracks, I have a hard time stomaching some of the lyricism. However a man as interesting and innovative as Lou Reed requires me to keep an open mind, and the honest and forthright lyrics about where his journeys through life take him make it worthwhile. Religious differences aside, The Velvet Underground is another spectacular record from one of my favorite bands of all time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat

Release Dates: January 30, 1968

★★★★★ Tracks:

White Light / White Heat

Here She Comes Now

White Light/White Heat takes all those noisy and abrasive moments from Velvet Underground’s first record and turns them in to six completely chaotic, experimental, amphetamine fuled songs. “The Gift” is an eight minute long spoken-word track (first ever?) written by Lou Reed and told by John Cale. It’s an incredibly odd, frightening yet interesting tale about a young man who dotes over his girlfriend who took off for college so much so, he decides to ship himself to her as a surprise, but something goes awfully wrong. The story is told through the left speaker, while an instrumental is played on the right side. “Sister Ray” is an improvisational, one take, 17-minute long bender, full of feedback, avant-jazz solos, and broken lyrics focusing on drugs, violence and sex. The other four tracks are shorter offerings, but the amplifiers are turned up to 11 on all but one, and they were specifically focused on “anti-beauty.” Sterling Morrison said, "We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That’s what’s reflected in the record."

Admittedly I don’t visit White Light/White Heat as much as a self-proclaimed Velvet Underground fan should. Sure this is the Velvet Underground at their most primal and possibly most influential state; the noisiest band of the 60’s managed to get noisier, and they don’t hold back in pushing pop and rock to entirely new boundaries, but the album as a whole isn’t as listenable as their other three proper full lengths. With Andy Warhol and Nico out of the picture the Velvet Underground seemed to lose their pop sensibilities, and all the changes within the band; the drugs, the tireless touring, the internal struggles between Cale and Reed seemingly culminated in to the six destructive, wayward, interesting but challenging songs contained within. But the Velvet Underground's weakest offering is better than most other band's highlights. The title track is what happens when you take a piano-driven saloon song and mix it with a fuzzy garage band. Lou Reed’s story in “The Gift” is pretty damned interesting, and we get a preview of what’s to come on their next album in the quiet “Here She Comes Now."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

Release Dates: March 12, 1967

★★★★★ Tracks:

Almost all of them.

What’s your favorite song of all time? Tough right? A friend and I were discussing a date she was on recently where they would eventually exchange each other’s favorites. As a pop/rock fan my brain scans the last 50 years of music and comes up with far too wide of a selection to choose just one. Even on a date for the sake of conversation I’m afraid I wouldn’t have an honest answer. A “Top 5” might be do-able, but it'd be a stretch. But if this hypothetical date held a gun to my head and insisted on five songs, I have little doubt “I’m Waiting For the Man” would be included on that list.

I first got hooked on “I’m Waiting For the Man” about ten years ago, when I really sat down and listened to the lyrics. Although I’ve never gotten in to the hard stuff, there’s something I dig about the rebellious nature of drug references in music. When Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967, mega-groups the Beach Boys and the Beatles were just beginning to hint to psychedelics influencing their music, but “I’m Waiting For the Man” was overtly about drugs. And not that happy hippie psychedelic shit that was sweeping the nation, this was about Heroin, the hardest drug you can get your hands on. Because of its controversial subject matter the song was banned from airplay on most radio stations. As the percussion bangs persistently and the bluesy music shuffles along to Reed's descriptive lyrics I could see why people were up in arms; it all sounds so fucking cool he's inadvertently inviting you to try the stuff.

Over four years ago I made the monumental move to New York City. Since then, the song speaks to me in new and more interesting ways. Reed paints such a vivid picture of the city; heading up the Lexington subway line to 125th Street, where, once in Harlem, he’s told he’s chasing all their women around as he approaches the brownstone where he obtains his fix, I can’t help but be proud I know exactly what and where he is talking about. Another great New York track is “Run Run Run,” where city references are abundant. A character named Teenage Mary exclaims, “Gonna take a walk down to Union Square! You never know who you're gonna find there!” Although these days she would find little distinction from the regulars frequenting the area; women shopping for shoes at DSW and tourists. A character named Beardless Harry takes a trolley to 47th Street in the same song, where most likely not by coincidence, Andy Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory, was located during most of the 60’s.

“I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Run Run Run” aren’t the only thing going for the The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s not considered one of the best albums of all time without reason. The harsh and controversial content sped up the process of uncensored lyricism in music. Lou Reed’s multifaceted guitar skills, with his meandering solos, beautiful guitar plucks, and experimental alternate tunings (he invented the Ostrich tuning) point to a very underrated musician. John Cale’s feedback laced viola is still something that hasn’t been replicated in modern music. Nico's inclusion on this record gives the Velvet Underground a variety they were unable to replicate, and her unique German voice suits a band from a city rooted in European immigration. New York artist Andy Warhol’s involvement adds intrigue, and it was at his request that Nico was added to the group (the band wasn't fond of the idea, hence the title of the record). After some time spent with the Velvet Underground it becomes apparent that they are not only the quintessential New York rock’n’roll band, they are one of the most important and influential bands in pop history.

The video below features Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol "superstars," that he requested a song be written about. Lou Reed agreed to it and came up with “Femme Fatale.” Nico sings the lead vocals.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vermont - Living Together

Release Dates: September 28, 1999

★★★★★ Tracks:

Living Together

Often grouped in with divisive late 90’s emo-rock acts Texas Is the Reason, Jimmy Eat World, Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, and countless others, The Promise Ring are sort of misunderstood -- they are first and foremost a pop band. Davey van Bohlen is even on record as saying that they had no idea 30° Everywhere was going to come out so ...emo, so they came in to the recording of Nothing Feels Good with the intentions of making one of the poppiest records ever in order to change that perception. It definitely succeeded in being more upbeat, but it wasn’t quite enough for Davey, and a few years later they recorded quite possibly one of the poppiest records on the planet in Very Emergency.

It might have been pop-overkill, because there’s no getting around the obvious emo-core intentions of Vermont; a side project created by van Bohlen soon after Very Emergency’s release in the fall of ‘99. All those indulgent lyrics on troubled relationship Davey van Bohlen had bottled up for the aesthetic purposes of the Promise Ring are unleashed here on Living Together in all their self-loathing glory. They’re accompanied by sappy acoustic guitars, weepy arpeggio guitar leads, and the occasional software string instrument via keyboards.

Living Together has survived in my collection for over a decade, moving from apartment to apartment and city to city. However it’s showing its age, no longer holding up all that well. I’ll always have an affinity for Davey’s music, but Vermont is an example of both emo’s immaturity, and my immature tastes in music as I was approaching my twenties. It’s a good thing van Bohlen kept the Promise Ring churning in the right direction, by doing so he was able to use his little known side project as a means for indulgent escapism. The title track will continue to travel with me however; sure it has all the qualities listed above, and I’m pretty sure the drums are probably produced by some generic Yamaha keyboard, but the melody is too damn good to ignore.

“You look so happy now
It’s true, you really do
You look so happy now
I would hate to be compared to you”