Monday, August 11, 2014

The Velvet Underground -- The Velvet Underground -- Review

The Velvet Underground (1969)
Rating: 12
"Help me in my weakness, 'cause I've fallen out of grace"
Best Song: Beginning to See the Light
Worst Song: Some Kinda Love

       Well, after White Light/White Heat, John Cale decided to leave. I can't seem to find out a definite reason why (most think that it was due to tension between him and Reed), but whatever the case -- he's out, and Doug Yule is in. Yule, a veteran of some long-forgotten contemporary of the band called The Grass Menagerie, brought along with him something of a gentle, folky sensibility. This, coupled with the fact that all of the band's amps and pedals had been stolen, led to the group deciding to take their next album in a direction resembling the softer songs from their previous two records -- tracks like "Here She Comes Now" and "Sunday Morning". This ended up giving the whole affair something of a smoky, late-night/morning-after vibe that I've never really encountered on any other album. This general mood is absolutely wonderful and incredibly unique -- had they combined this mood with some extremely strong songwriting, the band could've made the strongest album of their career...emphasis on the "could've".
       Instead they simply made one of the better albums of their career, one that is indeed good, but also one that falls juuust short of all-time greatness. There's just too much flat-out filler here, such as the meandering, countryish "Some Kinda Love". The lyrics are mildly amusing, but the twanging guitars get a bit repetitive, the vocal melody doesn't really...erm...exist, and the whole thing just screams "Unneccessary!" in my ears. Yawn.
       There's also the issue of over-repetition that rears its ugly head every so often. Of course, a low-key folk-rock album can only have so much diversity, but the problem with repetition isn't only found in the style's also in the melodies. "Candy Says" and "Jesus", while both absolutely beautiful, heart-wrenching ballads, sound very similar, and "That's the Story of My Life" is nothing more than an silly acoustic retake of the uplifting, far superior "Beginning to See the Light".
       That's not to say that the entire album is nothing more than a bunch of sleepy folk songs built on dreamy arpeggiated guitars and soothing vocals, though; there are a number of exceptions to this general rule. "What Goes On" and the aforementioned "Beginning to See the Light" actually come close to being what you might call rockers! Anthemic vocals, powerful (but still subtle) multi-tracked guitar strums, and, in the case of "What Goes On", some wonderfully uplifting organ work help distance these tracks from the insomnia-aiding calm of the album's other songs. In addition to providing needed diversity, they're also simply flat-out wonderful songs. "I'm Beginning" is a particularly strong track; Lou's vocal melody is great, the layered acoustic riffage provides a wonderful backing, and the lengthy coda where the band keeps singing "How does it feeeeeel to be looooooooooved?" in unison is simply magical, one of the most memorable highlights of the whole VU catalog.
       Another song that's rather different than the bulk of the album's material is the simply bizarre "Murder Mystery", a 10-minute (!), multi-part song suite filled with deadpan spoken-word recitations, eerie keyboard lines, bashing drums, and some nice singing from Lou, Yule, and even drummer Maureen Tucker (who, despite being barely used by the band, has a pleasant child-like quality to her voice). The song eventually turns into something completely different around the 7-minute mark as it completely drops out and a strangely chipper piano line comes in. The brief moment of levity is then spoiled by a load of disturbing lyrics, dissonant feedback, and what sounds like a small army of out-of-tune pianos attacking the listener...and then it ends. Is it cool? Yeah, sure. Does it need to go on for 10 minutes? Nah, but it holds its length better than you might expect, and it's a welcome addition to the album.
       "The Murder Mystery"'s finish heralds the start of the album's final tune, the wonderfully charming "After Hours" (not to be confused with Martin Scorcese's criminally underrated film). It's nothing more than a simple acoustic show-tune sung by Maureen, but it works wonderfully as a closer to the whole experience. There are also a number of other ballads, including the magical "Pale Blue Eyes" and the uplifting, empowering "I'm Set Free", but that basic description pretty much sums up the album. No, it's not their best, but it's quite good, and the mood it creates is completely unique and very special. Don't get it first, but get it soon afterwards.

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