Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Past Greatness: February '17

Welcome to the third installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. The one pre-requisite I have for this series is that I must have first listened to the album within the past month, or close enough to it. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's albums all come from the same individuals. Lou Reed's Transformer, his introductory Glam Rock piece with production by David Bowie. The Velvet Underground & Nico's self-titled, an all-time classic that needs no explaining. And Nico's Chelsea Girl, a quaint Folk album that, despite the singer's disdain towards it, is enticingly pretty

Lou Reed | Transformer | Listen
1972 | Glam Rock

With how much Velvet Underground and friends I've been ingesting lately, it's odd that the expected turmoil from their behind-the-scenes relationship has been mostly lost on me. A biography may be in store. I mean talk of Warholian multimedia pieces, racist outbursts in restaurants, and complete band removal leading to a certain Squeeze only seem to scratch the surface. For them to create such a breadth of music amidst all the chaos is quite a tremendous feat, and one, if I had known the intricate instances and personality squabbles better, might have heightened my enjoyment of why or how some of these records ended up the way they did. One of many such transgression's occurred between 1970 and 1972, a two-year span that saw Lou Reed ditch the band he created only to release Transformer soon thereafter. That goes without mentioning the release of his solo debut, The Velvet Underground's Loaded, John Cale's Vintage Violence, and Nico's Desertshore, all released during that time as well. Chaos is putting it lightly.

Anyways, speaking on behalf of their encounters as if I'm a Velvet Underground historian is wrong. Point being, despite all the outside stress, Lou Reed still made Transformer and, if you hadn't known any better (like me), everything was fine and dandy. No, this isn't as revolutionary as The Velvet Underground & Nico. No album is. However, Reed's decision to latch onto Glam Rock in its early stages by using David Bowie and Mick Ronson for key producing roles immediately affiliated him and Transformer as being key ingredients to the essential Glam Rock canon. After hearing the album, I'm inclined to agree. By and large, Reed's seminal solo work is a beaut, and one that interestingly juxtaposes what a David Bowie album would sound like had it not been sung by the man himself. Better yet, in the moments where Reed's prowess and origin of Art Rock come through, the two-tone vibrancy really creates some unforgettable works that unite the pretty and ugly sides of the glitz and glamor. 'Walk On The Wild Side' is the key culmination of that idea, and the honor it has standing atop Reed's discography is entirely justified. Yes, even if I prefer what A Tribe Called Quest did with the sample on 'Can I Kick It?'

Something I've noticed having gone through a handful of Velvet Underground-related albums, the first half tends to be musically superior. Nowhere is that more evident than on Transformer. In the first seven tracks, only 'Hangin' 'Round' feels unqualified and largely redundant. It's too peppy, and not cheeky enough to compare to 'Andy's Chest' or 'Make Up.' It's in efforts like these that Bowie's God-like work in Glam Rock reveals itself. Because while there's only one slip-up in the first seven, the final four tracks are riddled with subpar panache that finds Reed's talents wasted. The penultimate climax of 'Satellite Of Love' was about as glitzy as Reed could muster whilst sounding musically adept. 'Wagon Wheel,' 'New York Telephone Conversation,' and even 'Goodnight Ladies,' though it works in an odd Randy Newman-sorta way, all fail to uphold the impact 'Vicious' or 'Perfect Day' have. Regardless, while Transformer's a classic misshapenly wrapped in a sparkly fabric, the contents held within feature limitless enjoyability. Reed's lyrics aren't too memorable, borrowing heavily from Glam Rock in that respect, but they fit the bill for how the genre should sound. When it comes to embracing music as a primary form of uplifting spirits, the unostentatiousness and overall catchiness Transformer adheres to makes it a pinnacle of the early 1970's sound. Either for those still experiencing the euphoria of drug addiction, or recently removed leading to life-affirming glee, Transformer succeeds.

The Velvet Underground & Nico | Listen
1967 | Art Rock

Three years ago, I had The Velvet Underground And Nico in my lap. The album, along with the rest of The Velvet Underground's discography, was sitting in my iTunes library. I don't remember the specifics of what I listened to on that banana album but something told me it was more important than I was giving it credit for, given my limited taste in music at the time. So what did I do? I removed it, letting The Velvet Underground's storied discography wither away in my unused music folder. And you know what? That was probably the best decision I ever made. Despite featuring a silly, nonsensical cover and an unassuming 11 songs at 48 minutes, there was already something magical about the album I hadn't yet been ready to discover. Well, having gone through a trove of artists since then, my time had come. And like almost everyone who puts on The Velvet Underground And Nico for the first time, it was not a listen soon to be forgotten. I've spent upwards of two years now trying to find artists before my time (i.e. 1992, when I was born) that I admire. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Funkadelic, Talking Heads, all of them mean something invaluable to me having had gone through their discographies. And yet, within a handful of listens, I came to the defiant conclusion that this album, this banana album, was better than any collection of work those aforementioned artists created in their lifetimes. It's just that good.

When it comes to all-time classic albums, I tend to struggle with properly reviewing them. Reviewing a good, a bad, an average album is easy enough as the material laid before you is, more often than not, fairly self-explanatory. But in cases like TVU&N, following that same formula not only proves difficult, it feels insulting. So I concede that this review won't be of top-tier quality, as putting into words just how phenomenal it is is rather challenging. In the 48 minutes, there is only one moment I feel is bad. That would be 'I'll Be Your Mirror's' final hook, which has two chorus building blocks, a square and a circle, and tries to fit them together. It doesn't work. But that's it. Nothing else on here is anything less than great, and for someone who criticizes every aspect of musicianship as much as myself, believe me, that's a lofty statement to make. As would be expected, the less than stellar cuts are those in which 1967 feels applicable to the time in which they were created. The aforementioned 'Mirror,' led by Nico, 'Run Run Run,' and 'There She Goes Again' all feel fairly rooted in the late 60's which still had trailing hints of the early decade's Baroque Pop and Pop Rock. However, even these tracks have infallible moments contained within, like 'There Shoe Goes Again's' wonderful climax that finds Lou Reed and production ramping up uniformly to a fading close.

With those three out of the way, the remaining eight tracks run the gamut of how influential this album would become. Not only are they infinitely varied, they're all nearly flawless in every respect. Really, considering how many sub-genres not yet formed can be found here, your favorite will likely just be the track you relate to the most. While an argument can be made that 'Heroin's' the definite pinnacle, it certainly doesn't imply that it's everyone's favorite, what with it's uncomfortable lyrics and unusual structure and all. However, not surprising given my eccentric tastes, 'Heroin' is indeed my favorite. I'll never forget my first listen, mouth agape, jaw continuously dropping as I sat in my car waiting for the tension to dissipate enough so I could turn it off and go inside to escape the winter. I won't bother describing the sensations cause it'll never do justice to facing it yourself. Along with Bowie's 'Heroes,' the closest experience I've had with songwriting perfection.

Obsessing over 'Heroin' wouldn't do the rest of TVU&N justice though, because on damn near any other album, including those by The Velvet Underground themselves, half a dozen other songs present here would be considered crowning jewels elsewhere. I adore 'Sunday Morning,' rock out to 'I'm Waiting For The Man,' marvel at 'Femme Fatale,' gush over 'Venus In Furs,' lose my mind to 'Black Angel's Death Song,' and worship 'All Tomorrow's Parties.' At the end of every single play-through of The Velvet Underground's debut I sit back, mind incapable of explaining thought processes, and just obsess over the sheer prowess of artistic splendor on display. "How is 'Sunday Morning' on the same album as fucking 'Heroin,'" I say to myself after every completed listen, so flabbergasted that I overlooked how the pleasant as a baby's bottom intro is the starting point to 'European Son's' grotesque ending point. How? How. Howwwww are all these songs on the same album made by the same five individuals? In all honestly, its been years since an album's made this kind of impression on me. Fifty years have passed since TVU&N's release, and the myriad of artists taking influence from it hasn't degraded the impact whatsoever. A strange feeling to know I've experienced what could possibly be the most culturally-significant album ever made, and I'm loving every second.

Nico | Chelsea Girl | Listen
1967 | Folk

Believe it or not, when I began my descent into Andy Warhol's associating music acts, this is where I started. Not The Velvet Underground, not Lou Reed, not John Cale, but Nico. The answer as to why is fairly self-explanatory. On my hunt for intriguing female musicians, whilst simultaneously appreciating the greatness of Swans and their elusive side singer Jarobe, Nico was brought to my attention as her primary influencer. After having gone through the German temptress' discography, and learning more about her deranged personal life, the comparisons became apt. However, much like how Swans morphed into the 90's Gothic Rock beasts from their 80's No Wave origins, Nico's genesis wouldn't become how her music overall was defined. There's no denying the bewilderment that would soon come when Nico forwent the blonde hair dye and became the fearless, striking, and utterly captivating Avant-Garde musician that would emerge on her more infamous 1968-1974 trilogy, but I'm personal to Chelsea Girl's innocent styling's. The emotion is night and day, and while the artist herself drew immediate disdain for Chelsea Girl thanks to the artistic choices commandeered by various Velvet Underground members, the straightforward Folk record came the closest to replicating 'Femme Fatale,' 'All Tomorrow's Parties,' and 'I'll Be Your Mirror' from her canonized work with the Lou Reed-led group.

While one wouldn't be discredited for thinking her lunacy that would follow Chelsea Girl is superior to her debut, the fact I enjoy the LP so much despite my general apathy towards Folk is the primary reason why it's my favorite. There's just something about her voice. Actually, scratch that uncertainty, there is something about her voice that resonates so strongly with many. Rarely will you find a talented singer such as Nico divide the line of love and hate as defiantly as her, endearing some while legitimately scaring others. Ironically, I fall into both, despite Chelsea Girl hinging on the former. Truth be told, there isn't much interest to be found in the production of Chelsea Girl. And while her later albums would emphasize sonic landscapes, Nico was still, as she's always been, the center of attention. I always have a difficult time describing vocals, and that won't change here, what with Nico's strong European accent and all. But while her lineage can directly be traced back to her German ancestors, the sounds protruding from her mouth feel more in line with ancient folklore, as if she's bringing Rip Vin Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, or Little Red Riding Hood to life.

As far as the sounds go here, there's something to be appreciated in the undeniably simple structures these songs endure. My two favorite tracks, 'The Fairest Of The Seasons' and 'These Days,' captures a singer so talented that she's able to make straightforward singer/songwriter Folk tunes seem infinitely deep. For the bulk of Chelsea Girl, it's really just Nico, an acoustic guitar, and some strings. Yet it feels as if there's hidden crevices to be unearthed, untold tales yet to become forthright, and darkness being consumed by the light. While she'd go even further down the rabbit hole with The Marble Index and beyond, everything wasn't peachy for Nico here despite the sound parlaying a different vibe. Her despondence and overall sadness is painfully evident, and works wonders in accentuating the given tone. And despite Chelsea Girl's down-to-earth attitude, it doesn't go without some hints of what's to come. Both 'Winter Song,' quite literally personifying a fairytale, and 'It Was A Pleasure Then' bring out Nico's experimental heart. The latter especially, and definite hints on 'Chelsea Girls,' witness Nico forcibly pulling away from the Folk, only to be dragged back by the beautiful 'I'll Keep It With Me.' This unhinged fight between needs of others and wants of herself causes Chelsea Girl to have quite the impact on me.

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