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This review is from: White Light / White Heat (Audio CD)
The Velvet Underground were perhaps the ultimate yin/yang band: with an incredible lyricist who was selfless about who actually sang them, capable of self-surrender ("Jesus") and total egotism (Lou Reed turning down the rest of the band in "I Heard Her Call My Name" - thankfully improved on the remaster), with a musical character capable of howling feedback and sweet chiming melodies, artistic yet streetwise, tough but vulnerable, basic yet relentlessly experimental, concise and pithy but able to do stream-of-consciousness ("Black Angel's Death Song") and a seventeen-minute epic, they had it all.
Where their debut combined all of these assets (making it a candidate for the greatest album of all time - and certainly one of the most influential), "White Light/White Heat" saw them focus on their dissonance and ferocity. (And their next album "The Velvet Underground" was all subdued sweet melodies). Consequently this can be a tough album to listen to, should you prefer the more focused and structured Velvet's songs - there's no "Sweet Jane" here, nor even "Venus In Furs" or "Heroin". In addition, this album is often cited as the worst-recorded album of all time, for the feedback, bleedthrough and distortion of the red-lining guitars and organ blew the studio capability apart (this being the mid-60s we're talking about here).
Nonetheless, this is a remarkable album, with musianship to die for. It starts relatively conventionally, with the eponymous title-track. It features a tremendous honkytonk rhythm, almost similar to "All Tomorrow's Parties", but where that felt portentous, this feels manically exhuberant, appropriately given the subject matter of speed. It ends with an incredible surge of bludgeoning energy, the like of which I have never heard anywhere else.
"The Gift" follows - a Lou Reed short story narrated by John Cale, over the backing of the Velvet's doing their Booker T and the MGs impression. The story is macabre and has an intensely black humour, and some wonderfully deft touches. Waldo's chracter can be immediately surmised by Sheila's two word summary of him..!
"Lady Godiva's Operation" starts fairly conventionally and, like a Burroughs story, just gets weirder and weirder. When Reed's voice cuts through with "Neatly" and "Sweetly" you wonder what planet they were on, and when the shivering starts you know you've never heard the like before. Bizarre but great fun.
"Here She Comes Now" has an achingly beautiful melody, played with impeccable gentleness. But almost in reply they follow with "I Heard Her Call My Name" which seems its crazed half-cousin. Where the narrator in "Here She Comes Now" is in love with a woman who doesn't notice him ("Ahhhh... she's made out of wood"), in "I Heard" the Velvets magnify that moment when love turns her gaze upon you to absurd proportions. Reed's guitar soloing is incredible, hyped and amplified to almost unbearable levels, and featuring perhaps the best use of feedback ever - after he says "And then my mind split open," there's a (relative) pause, and then the feedback explodes.
However all this pales into comparison with the closer "Sister Ray". Reed often mentioned freeform jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman in relation to this song, and so traditional rock concepts of verse and chorus, melody and harmony are out of the window. Built upon a huge surging three-chord riff, "Sister Ray" grows into a monstrous epic, with Reed and Cale almost literally duelling it out, with guitar and organ freeforming and interjecting upon each other and the vocal. Like Coltrane's "Asenscion" and Coleman's "Free Jazz", each seems to take turn to solo while the other instruments comment upon and freeform over it. This gives the whole piece an insane level of musical ferocity - "Sister Ray" was done live, in one take, and no-one backs down at any point to accomodate anyone else. All mighty good, a gleeful musical decontruction. And yet the closing of the song tops all that, when the steady propulsive beat (deftly accelerating or slowing as the song demands) of Mo Tucker's drums finally become as thrashed as the other instruments, which leads to a huge feedback soundblast, an incredible outpouring of sonic energies at the speed of light. Utterly jaw-dropping incredible. Lou Reed's vocals also deserve a mention - he narrates a seedy debauched tale of junky transvestites and a murdered sailor, but two and a half times, and with ever more distortion, playing with the words, stretching them out, misshaping them. Everything is dissonant, distorted, even the lyric and voice. To some, "Sister Ray" is the greatest song ever recorded - it's unsurpassed in many ways. No punk band ever approached this level of power.
In sum, this album is certainly an acquired taste, but if you like feedback, distortion and plain old noise, it's the finest example of its kind, unsurpassed in forty years.