Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ruminations: 'the velvet underground & nico' by castle face and friends

I’ve been very impressed by the reissue campaign that Universal have put together for their 45th anniversary 6-disc reissue of ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico.’ Among the biggest surprises was the announcement of this tribute album being released on vinyl by Castle Face. I pre-ordered a copy with the first posting (it’s already sold out, in fact) that contained the tracklist, which look like this—

1. Sunday Morning—Kelley Stoltz
2. I’m Waiting for the Man—Warm Soda
3. Femme Fatale—Ty Segall
4. Venus in Furs—Blasted Canyons (featuring Jeremy Cox of Royal Baths)
5. Run Run Run—White Fence
6. All Tomorrow’s Parties—The Fresh & Onlys
7. Heroin—Burnt Ones
8. There She Goes Again—The Mallard
9. I’ll be your Mirror—Here Comes the Here Comes
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song—K. Dylan and The Black Angel Death Songsmen
11. European Son—Thee Oh Sees

Castle Face and Universal made the album available track-by-track through a bit of an online scavenger hunt which concluded on Monday with the release of Thee Oh Sees’ faithful rendering of ‘European Son.’

Upon my initial delight at pre-ordering this release I started to give it a bit of consideration and got a bit nervous. It’s quite an undertaking to take on a tribute album of such a classic. I had almost forgotten how much I loved this record until the excitement of this release prompted me to finally convert my vinyl copy of the original album and I was blown away by how unique it still sounds. What were my expectations for these cover versions? Would they be completely re-interpreted or painfully faithful versions? The answer is a bit all-over-the-map, which should’ve been obvious from the outset. There aren’t many of these covers that I’m not wild about. The cover of ‘I’ll be your Mirror,’ which is sung by label co-owner Brian Lee Hughes’ daughter seemed like a strong contender, but that one proved to have the most beautifully restrained music of all of them which suited the song so perfectly. All of them are very carefully handled—it was wise of Universal to hand the reigns to Castle Face to handle such an undertaking. A major label tribute would’ve been an unmitigated disaster, but this tribute really captures the spirit of what the Velvets did and how their influence has continued on as vitally as it has (and continues to).

Blasted Canyons’ cover of ‘Venus in Furs’ is what filled me with the greatest amount of faith for the rest of the album. The song is the first thing I heard by the Velvets that blew me away in ways that I didn’t even think were possible in music at the time (I heard it when I was 17). Their version is absolutely perfect—it takes the song, matches its level of grime and sticks faithfully to the vocal melody and the squeal of John Cale’s electric viola on the track while adding some pretty dense and brain-melting drone. It’s absolutely great. Kelley Stoltz’s soft reading of ‘Sunday Morning’ is probably my next favourite of them all—it’s matched almost perfectly to the original part-for-part. But it works. Warm Soda (a band who I’d never heard of before) do the best of making their track their own without it sounding unnatural, forced or even conscious. The Mallard’s extended version of ‘There She Goes Again’ does a good job of this as well. Ty Segall takes ‘Femme Fatale’ and pummels it into an almost completely different song. It barely resembles the original—appropriate as he seemed like an odd choice to cover it. White Fence’s ‘Run Run Run’ and The Fresh & Onlys’ ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ both hit a nice middle ground between the two extremes. Both also seemed like the most natural choices out of the whole selection.

What really put my anxieties to rest is when Burnt Ones’ cover of ‘Heroin’ finally surfaced. Personally if I’d been asked to contribute a cover for this compilation I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one who ended up having to cover this song. It’s the most influential and iconic song on an album that’s made up of iconic and influential songs. Plus I’d never even heard of them. What they do with it is admirable and reverent without sacrificing the impact of the song, which sounds entirely deliberate to me. It was nice to hear someone covering this song and doing everything they could to make it worthy of the original. They took the dynamic tension of the original as the blueprint, held true to the anguish in the lyrics and didn’t go overboard on the noise. I’m not even sure what they used to create that whirring wall of drone in the background, similar to how I wasn’t sure what it was on the original. I’m particularly fond of the climax on this cover because it’s every bit as hard-hitting as it needs to be. Thee Oh Sees’ version of ‘European Son’ starts off sounding like Joy Division covering the song and then it degrades into gleeful, anarchic noise-making (including John Dwyer’s ever-present flute).

In conclusion this is more than worth your time. As someone's who's lived with this record since they were 17, this version is a beautiful breath of fresh air for these songs and worthy companion to the original. Could there be a higher compliment?

1 comment:

Brazil Jimenez said...

I have made a counter-cover album, handling all parts and production myself, of "White Light/White Heat" - check it out: