Sunday, 1 December 2013

Album Review:The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat deluxe box set


With the recent passing of Lou Reed, the central figure in much of the Velvet Underground's output, there has been a lot of evaluating into Reed's legacy to music, which is no easy task when looking over one of the more diverse outputs in rock history, spanning close to fifty years. Still, his influence and impact on music is undeniable. Veering from the wildly successful pop of Transformer to the alienating experimentation of Metal Machine Music Reed has covered a substantial amount of sonic territory, though looking at the recent remaster of White Light/White Heat, his second album with The Velvet Underground, it might be the most representative release from one of the greatest talents in contemporary music.

The history of The Velvet Underground is already well-documented; especially the turbulent inter-band relationships (with White Light being the last album with John Cale as a member of the band). That tension between the group's members didn't stop them from creating some of the greatest albums of the sixties. Their ramshackle sound seems like it would have been stumbled upon by accident, filled with youthful aggression that paved the way for punk and noise music that wouldn't really take off for another decade. Their music was out off step with pretty much everything else at the time, and despite never reaching widespread renown in their heyday, time has judged the band kindly as their influence has grown and continues to inspire new generations of artists.

The White Light/White Heat Deluxe Box Set is made up of remastered studio and mono recordings of the album itself alongside other tracks from the same studio sessions, including alternate takes as well as a live recording from a show in New York in 1967, shortly after the band had released their debut album. White Light/White Heat has always felt to me like a companion piece to their debut, slightly more accomplished musically and experimenting in new ways, with recording processes and the spoken word. It doesn't have anything as basic and primitive as the drum beat to I'm Waiting For My Man, but it's still much more raw in its sound and maybe more assured in execution.

The title track kicks off the album, a ramshackle rock song with jangling piano and Lou Reed's oddball delivery, it's a perfect culmination of the talents of the group, creating a unique, catchy rock song obscured under distortion. Despite the remaster the recording still retains its scruffy and raw presentation. During the recording sessions, they ran everything through distortion and compressors, breaking with the standard record procedures, leaving a muddy and dense recording sounding unlike anything else.
The Gift can still draw you into it's narrative after so many listens, with Cale's unemotional and matter of fact delivery, even when you know every twist and turn in the unfortunate story of the unhinged Waldo Jeffers. Cale takes the lead again on Lady Godiva, a song that feels like its constantly falling out of time with itself, maybe due to Reed's dazed delivery, or the different sounds that invade the mix in its second half.

Providing a light respite from the noise Here She Comes Now features clean guitars and Lou Reed's calm singing making for a much need change in tone, even if it doesn't last long. The album closes with the seventeen-minute long epic Sister Ray, still sounding like nothing else that's come along since, relentless and overwhelming. Part-freak-out-jam, part sonic assault, it takes the template of tracks like European Son and builds upon the ideas creating a larger and much stranger beast in the process.

Amongst the demo tracks is the original recording of fantastic Stephanie Says, which wouldn't be officially released until the eighties, though was remade for Lou Reed's Berlin album in 1973 as Stephanie Says (II), but the track makes much more sense surrounded by other tracks from the same recording sessions, sounding like the sweeter pop moments from their album with Nico with its picked clean guitar lines, you can see why it wouldn't have fit so well amongst the dirt and sleaze of the recordings that made up White Light/White Heat. There are two versions of the Cale-penned Hey Mr. Rain featuring some of his best violin playing with the group, with one version adding to the tempo and noise enough to give it a little more urgency, though turns into more of an extended jam.

The third disc of this collection is a live set from The Gymnasium in New York from 1967, and whilst it is rougher than the studio recordings, it does capture some of the excitement, and shows the groups' experimentation didn't finish in the studio, with the versions played here often becoming wildly different from their recorded counterparts.

White Light/White Heat proved that their debut wasn't a fluke and cemented their worth as a band that would be an important piece of musical history. Many of the band members like Reed and Cale had more successful solo careers after leaving the Velvet Underground but here their unique musicianship and approaches to song writing and recording create what might be the most unique and lasting legacy of all their work. It's hard to get across just how big of an impact they had, but it is unlikely that seminal album by acts such as Television, Spacemen 3 and The Strokes would have ever existed without The Velvet Underground.

The Deluxe remaster of White Light/White Heat is a comprehensive collection and long time fans will enjoy hearing the album anew though additions like the instrumental and vocal only versions of The Gift feel unnecessary. These kind of box sets have been thrived recently, and whilst they clearly make their moneys worth from them, there has been an effort to include something unique for the more dedicated fan or collector. And that is who it will really appeal to, if only for the few previously unreleased tracks, but the b-sides and tracks from the same recording sessions. Whether you want all the bells and whistles or not, the six tracks that make up White Light/White Heat are absolutely essential for any music fan, containing an energy and restlessness that still makes it a vital listen forty five years after it was first committed to tape.

Originally posted on

No comments:

Post a Comment