Friday, November 26, 2010

Velvet Underground 2: White Light/White Heat

Nico was gone, and the band carried on. To make up for her absence, they turned the volume up to 11 and didn’t hardly let up at all on White Light/White Heat.
The title track is an amphetamine onslaught, all distorted with quasi-doo-wop vocals up until the big blast of a finish in two minutes fifty—just right for Top 40 radio! The full-on promise of “Waiting For The Man” and “European Son” gets multiplied here. “The Gift” provides a much different listening experience entirely, split into extreme stereo with the two-chord jam on one side, and John Cale’s recitation of Lou’s short story of the rise and fall of Waldo and Marsha in the other. Best of all, it doesn’t get stale on repeat listens. A less penetrable tale is told in “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, where the vocals and vocalizations swap over a near-baroque backing, an approach that continues on “Here She Comes Now”, the quietest song on the album.
Which isn’t saying much, because side two isn’t quiet at all. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a mere prelude of constantly soloing guitars over a relentless beat and lyrics that almost seem like an afterthought. You can just barely hear the chord changes beneath the guitar. But it’s only a setup for “Sister Ray”. These seventeen minutes of three chords have influenced more than their share of bands, but few can match the steady metronomic beat under the battle between the organ and guitars. It’s not easy listening, and it’s either loved or hated. But if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want more.
White Light/White Heat can be seen as the antidote to the Summer of Love, starting off a tumultuous year with an assault to the senses. It would be the last true collaboration between Reed and Cale for twenty years, which is too bad, because they work together so well here. In only two albums, this band managed to create a sound that has been so influential in the over forty years since it happened. So much so that the participants have been trying to live up to it ever since.
With impeccable timing, Lou Reed left the planet just after approving the expanded editions of the album, giving the project a publicity boost. The Deluxe Edition added the five songs featuring Cale familiar from VU and Another View, an alternate “I Heard Her Call My Name” and a never-before-heard early take of “Beginning To See The Light”. The legendary April 1967 concert at the Gymnasium is included as well, rather than appearing as part of their stillborn “Bootleg Series”. (The Super Deluxe Edition had all that plus a big book, and a third disc with mono mixes, single mixes and new vocal- and instrument-only mixes of “The Gift”.)

The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat (1968)—4
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 14 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 10 tracks)

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