Monday, August 11, 2014

The Velvet Underground -- White Light/White Heat -- Review

White Light/White Heat (1968)
Rating: 10
"Aw, you shouldn't do that! Don't you know you'll stain the carpet?"
Best Song: White Light/White Heat
Worst Song: The Gift

       Is it wrong of me to say that I enjoy this one more than the debut? ...well, obviously it's not *wrong*, it's only a matter of personal opinion, but still -- 9 times out of 10 I would much rather listen to this than Nico.
       ....which is pretty ironic, since this one is FAR more purposely ugly and nihilistic than its predecessor. The band took the feedback squalls and avant-garde nuttiness of "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son" and basically extended them into an entire album. No catchy guitar-rockers, no happy pop songs, no stately ballads...pretty much everything on here is dedicated to frightening and, to some degree, irritating the listener in ever way imaginable. And yet it's an accepted classic, and a completely enjoyable listen?
       One song, "The Gift", even goes so far as to have no melody at all -- it's just a short story being read aloud by Cale while the band mindlessly jams along behind him. It would be hard to even call it a "song", but for whatever reason it...kinda works. Now don't get me wrong, it's far and away the worst track on the album, but there's still SOMETHING about the song that attracts me to it. Those feedback squeals combined with Cale's hilarious accent make the song work juuuust enough to get by. It also helps that the story itself, written by Lou back in his college days, is quite entertaining. It's essentially a tale of two lovers who are separated, and the lengths that the guy in the relationship, Waldo Jeffers, is willing to go to in order to be reunited with his girlfriend...but of course, everything goes completely awry in an absolutely bizarre, darkly comedic fashion. Note to self and all blog-readers -- packaging and mailing yourself to a loved one, while a perfectly clever idea, isn't the smartest thing to do.
       The title track is a major classic, with the band returning to that incredibly effective *chank*chank*chank*chank* groove of songs like "I'm Waiting for the Man", albeit in an even harsher, sloppier way. The melody is brilliant (those backing vocal chants of "White light!" and "White heat!" are sooo catchy to me), the groove is irresistible, and that throbbing bass solo at the very end is just as disorienting and mind-blowing as I'm sure the band intended it to be.
       "Here She Comes Now" is a wonderful respite from the noise of the rest album, a gentle ballad that while short, works wonderfully in context. The melody is also very nice, and the low-key atmosphere is rather addictive, much like the ballads off of the next album. Even tastier is "Lady Godiva's Operation", a song that rises from the ashes of "The Gift". As the final crushing guitar notes fade out from that track, "Lady Godiva" kicks in to wonderful effect -- the seductive, very full sound of the song works wonderfully to take the listener out of the disjointedness of "The Gift". The song proceeds along this path as Cale sings a wonderfully seductive vocal melody over the dangerous-sounding (yet somehow slightly beautiful) backing track...until Lou randomly comes in at the end with an assortment of sound effects and jarring spoken-word declarations. The song then essentially collapses under its own weight after a minute of this chaos, to delightful effect.
       But all of this fades into the distance when we finally approach the album's final, most infamous track...I am speaking, of course, of the 17-minute "Sister Ray". As you probably already know, the song is nothing more than the band grinding on the same primitive riff over and over and over again for nearly 20 minutes. It's definitely jarring, and it's definitely a groundbreaking piece of music...but is it any good?
       Surprisingly, the answer is a rousing yes. It definitely is. Although I must agree with what many others have said before me -- it would make a BRILLIANT 8 or 9-minute track, whereas the 17-minute version is slight overkill. Nevertheless, the repetition of the same musical phrase over and over again gives the song an indisputably anthemic quality, and that basic guitar riff is SO pleasing on a near-primal level that it becomes hard to resist. If you were to travel back in time to the Middle Ages and explain the genre of music known as "rock and roll" to someone, I imagine that they would picture it as something like "Sister Ray". It's the one of the few 60s songs I've heard that still sounds legitimately frightening to this day. The only other possible contender for this title would be Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused", but even that has a level of professionalism and studio polish -- this features nothing along those lines AT ALL.
       Hell, the band's producer notoriously walked out of the studio halfway through the recording of "Sister Ray", refusing to participate in the creation of what he thought was sheer aural torture. The levels of distortion on the track approach levels of white noise from time to time (in fact, White Noise/White Heat would've been a pretty great name for the album), and while I prefer my bouts of sheer noise to be momentary rather than lengthy (and there are more than a couple of minutes of the song's running time where the noise reaches that level of extremity), the track still cooks on a general level. THIS, ladies and gents, is pure proto-punk -- one of the very first examples of rock and roll boiled down to its rawest elements. This is rock music dragged by the knuckles all the way back to its purest essence, and while you may not be able to stand it, I find it quite interesting and even pleasing, on some primal level or another.
       Y'know, you might as well just go ahead and use those last few sentences to describe the entire album. This is a band searching desperately to find the primordial ooze that rock'n'roll seeped out of, and then perverting and mangling that ooze into what must have been a ridiculously frightening piece of work when it came out. And you know's still a bit disconcerting now.
       Yeah, now. Now!!!!! In the time of derivative scream bands, ridiculously edgy bands like, uh, I dunno, Death Grips, and loads of other artists making music for the sheer purpose of offending people's sensibilities: morally, musically, and otherwise -- this thing is still dangerous-sounding. It still shocks you when you first turn it on. There's something to be said about that -- I don't even think you could say something like that about The Velvet Underground and Nico. That's some seriously notable staying power.
       The sheer musical elements here still aren't quite enough for me to give the album anything higher than an 11, but everyone needs to give this a listen. And yes, I truly mean EVERYONE. I give it my highest recommendation...even if my score might not say as much. This is an album truly like no other.

Buy it here: White Light/White Heat

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