Album Reviews: The Velvet Underground - Loaded: Reloaded (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) and The Complete Matrix Tapes

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When VU and Another View came out in 1985 and 1986, I assumed that these strong albeit brief outtakes collections represented all that remained to be discovered in the Velvet Underground archives. By then, the group had been broken up for more than a decade; and in addition to these two records, we’d already had a couple of concert albums, Live at Max’s Kansas City and 1969 Velvet Underground Live. If anything significant was still in the can, I figured, we would have heard it by now.

As it turns out, I figured extremely wrong, though we had to wait a long time for more material. In 1995—two years after the group reunited long enough to deliver the concert preserved on Live MCMXCIII—Polydor issued the massive five-CD Peel Slowly and See, which wedded the Velvets’ four studio albums to a treasure trove of rarities. (Technically speaking, there was a fifth studio album, Squeeze, but it featured no original band members.) Fully Loaded, a two-disc expanded version of the group’s fourth record, arrived in 1997. Then, in 2001, came the lo-fi but high-energy Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes, a three-CD collection of concert material that had been taped by guitarist and Velvets fan Bob Quine. Volume two of that series never showed up—Quine died in 2004—but then, in 2012, we saw the first of the 45th anniversary “super deluxe” editions of each of the group’s four original records. The last of these has just been released, as has the four-CD Complete Matrix Tapes, which documents two nights from a November 1969 gig at San Francisco’s Matrix club.

There’s bad news and good news regarding both of these latest collections. The bad news is that they suggest the compilers may at long last be scraping the bottom of the barrel, in that both sets contain a preponderance of previously released material. While the sound quality of most of the tracks has been upgraded, it’s likely that many of the fans who love the Velvet Underground enough to buy these fat boxes probably already own much of what they contain. The good news is that both sets do include some noteworthy fresh material and that both are absolutely packed with five-star performances.

Let’s look first at Loaded: Reloaded—Super Deluxe 45th Anniversary Edition. “Super deluxe” may sound like redundant hype, but only until you learn how much has been included in this release. It expands the group’s ten-song, single-disc final studio LP to five CDs with a total of 75 tracks, plus an audio DVD. The program incorporates remastered stereo and promotional mono versions of the original 1970 album, both of which are augmented with singles, B sides, and other obscurities. Also featured are a disc with 21 additional outtakes, early versions, demos, and alternate mixes; a remastered copy of Live at Max’s Kansas City; and a previously unavailable audience-member recording of a May 1970 Philadelphia concert. The DVD adds four high-resolution versions of the original Loaded, two with 5.1 surround sound.

You could make a case that Loaded: Reloaded is actually overloaded. As noted earlier, most of its tracks have previously been released in some form. Moreover, many people are likely to consider the poorly recorded Philadelphia concert dispensable, and I’m not sure anyone needs a mono version of the original album.

That said, this package is a must for fans who don’t already own much of the group’s work. Loaded—the Velvets’ fourth record and the second to issue from the post-John Cale version of the band—is a fascinating classic. You can still hear the drug-fueled after-hours East Village sensibility that powered the group’s first two records, but it mixes here with Doug Yule’s pop vocals, Lou Reed’s love of early doo-wop, and several radio-friendly melodies. Unless you listen carefully, you could mistake parts of  “Who Loves the Sun” and “I Found a Reason” for the sort of pop singles that issued from Harpers Bizarre or the Association. But it all works, thanks to gorgeous harmonies, driving rhythms and Lou Reed’s lyrics, which celebrate the redemptive power of rock and roll and the glory of love. (He was, in fact, quite a romantic.)

The remaster of the full-length Max’s concert—which includes several songs from Loaded plus seven sublime numbers from the group’s eponymous third album and four gems from its two predecessors—is terrific. So is the disc of obscurities, which features a demo of “Satellite of Love” (a song that surfaced on Reed’s solo Transformer LP) and early versions of nine of the ten songs on Loaded.

Even some fans who already own much of the aforementioned material may want to pick up Loaded: Reloaded for its DVD Audio disc, which includes two surround-sound 5.1 remixes (DTS 96/24 and Dolby digital). For those who want to hear something closer to the original (only better), there are also two high-resolution stereo mixes: a downmix of the 5.1 version and a flat transfer of the original album.

These latter two mixes improve on the regular release, but it’s the surround-sound recordings that—like most DVD Audio discs I’ve heard—are a revelation. (Note to record companies: I’ll bet more releases in this spectacular and difficult-to-illegally-download format could offer a shot in the arm to the music business.) The difference between 5.1 and stereo is far more dramatic than that between stereo and mono. Instruments sound crisp and well defined, and each issues from its own space. Lou Reed, fellow vocalist Doug Yule, and the rest of the band seem to be right there with you in the room.

While the sound isn’t quite that good on The Complete Matrix Tapes, it is excellent throughout, and the program—which includes songs from the Velvets’ first three studio albums and the then still-to-be-recorded fourth—is breathtakingly good.

As noted earlier, the Matrix box consists largely of previously released material. Some of the performances first appeared on 1969 Velvet Underground Live while others showed up on The Quine Tapes and still others were included with last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of the group’s third LP. However, nine of the 42 selections have never previously been released; and this is the first time that all of the tracks have appeared together and in versions that have been mixed down from the original in-house four-track recording.

The box, which includes more than four and a half hours of music, contains multiple renditions of many songs—all different and virtually all sensational. The band offers several previously unavailable speeded-up readings of “Some Kinda Love,” for example, as well a slowed-down, folk-flavored “I’m Waiting for the Man,” on which Reed actually winds up whistling. Then there’s the nearly 40-minute reading of “Sister Ray,” which mixes repetitive rhythms with the sort of frantic, orgasmic guitar rave-up that only the Velvets could produce. Also here are sweet, achingly beautiful renditions of such ballads as “I’m Set Free” and “Over You” and a version of “Sweet Jane” with almost completely different lyrics from the ones we know.

In a now-famous line in “Rock & Roll,” a song that appears on both Loaded and The Complete Matrix Tapes, Lou Reed sings of a girl whose “life was saved” by the music. Listening to these albums, you get the feeling that he’s actually singing about himself in that line—and also that, if any music can save a life, this is probably it.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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