Thursday, April 12, 2012

"The Velvet Underground & Nico" by The Velvet Underground (March, 1967)

Dad's Take:

I find the Velvet Underground very hard to relate to personally, with its urban junkie themes, but it's impossible not to hear how this band that barely scratched the awareness of the general public during most of their career influenced much of what came later, especially in the punk and post-punk alternative scenes.

The opening track, "Sunday Morning," is like late-sixties sparkly pop on heroin. Maybe because of Lou Reed's pop sensibility and his substance issues. It belies the darkness of most of the rest of the album.

This is one of those records that's hard not to judge in retrospect. Even in the anything-goes musical world of 1967, this album is odd. For one thing, nobody can actually sing, although they almost sound like people who can. It's not just that their voices are unusual, but that they really sound like they are in the wrong business. It's like they're saying, "If Dylan can do it, we can too," only they can't. And yet, the thing works extremely well. Like so many successful artists who make it in spite of their voices, VU took their sub-par voices and made them right for their music. If they had better voices, their schtick would break. And when you look back at it from those punk and alternative days, you see how much influence they had.

The catchy pop songs like "Femme Fatale" with their sixties feel have a dark edge that is almost a parody of the pop forms they imitate. And that's the whole point. VU is like the underside of pop, and its way is more honest than the music it undercuts. Whether they are attacking the exotic sound of the Beatles Indian-influenced songs on cuts like "Venus In Furs" or flat-out junkie songs like "Heroin," there's a truth in the music that is often missing from the shiny corporate pop. Maybe this is Any Warhol's influence on the album. His art often looks like simple commercial pop art, but with a sharp underbelly. That same thing is all over this record.

I admit that I often find VU difficult to listen to, and at times feel like it's one of those "art" things that I'm not hip enough to get. Only, I do get it, I think. That it's hard to listen to doesn't mean I don't see why it is so highly rated. It's not hard to believe that Lou Reed started out by playing cover versions of popular songs for budget labels like Pickwick. You hear the pop sensibilities and the jadedness of mail-order budget commercial cynicism. This attitude became the predominant one in popular music two and three decades later. That those bands that popped up in the late eighties and nineties looked back at the VU is obvious and maybe inevitable.

And, here's the thing. There's a lot of interesting stuff happening in these songs, especially in the cynical dissonance. The almost-too-relaxed underground style of the arrangements and the garage band production values hide some smart instrumentation and an artistic sensibility. Like much worthwhile art, it's not always pretty, but it tells a truth we don't like to see.

Do I like it? What is "like"? Does the band even want me to like it? I don't know. But it's better than I sometimes like to admit, fits in with both 1967 and 1997, and rewards repeated listenings more than you might expect the first time you hear it. Yeah, that junkie New York club scene is probably as much a myth as the Beach Boys' version of California (which it also lampoons in places), and it's a mythical world that makes me uncomfortable, but that doesn't make the art any less valid.

So this is one I can pull out once in a while and get into, although I'm exhausted by the end. For its influence alone it belongs on our list, and maybe mainly for that influence. But it also takes rock and roll to artistic places where it hadn't gone before. And, even if it's hard to listen to, it is good, much better than it seems like it should be, given the elements of the band.

Brad's Take:

This is yet another good example of a band that I have heard of for many years, but never got around to listening to on my own. Because of that, I was pretty excited to bust this out and give it a whirl.

The album's first 3 songs are great. They've got that 60's folk rock kind of thing going on, mixed with some of the psychedelic sounds. It reminds me a little bit of the last Bob Dylan album we reviewed. Lou Reed and Dylan even have a similar vocal style in some songs, like "Venus In Furs."

"Femme Fatale" was a song that I was already very familiar. Not their version though. The solo project of Mike Kinsella, called Owen, recorded an almost unrecognizable version of the song for his amazing album At Home With Owen a few years ago. Until just a few months ago though, I thought he wrote it. It was cool hearing the original version of the song, but I do enjoy Owen's rendition of it most.

In the song "Run Run Run," you realize that these guys weren't the most skilled musicians... The "guitar solo" in that song is just terrible. I can't figure out what Sterling Morrison was thinking when he recorded that thing, but it's no bueno.

Overall, this album reminds me of a sloppy band of teenagers trying to write in the style of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but doing it very sloppily and not very well. For what it is though, it's pretty good. There's definitely potential. It's like watching a local band of junior high kids that are trying hard to be awesome, but they're coming up short, but you still give them a few bucks for a CD and say, "Good job, but keep trying. You'll be great in a couple years." I could listen to this again, I think.

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