Music Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)

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A few years ago I spent some time with former Velvet Underground member Doug Yule, having booked his trio RedDog to play a couple of fundraising concerts I produced. Yule, now a maker (and player) of violins, had long since left the rock world behind in favor of Appalachian folk (RedDog’s Hard Times was praised by David Fricke in Rolling Stone). Spending a bit of time with a personal musical hero was a genuine thrill. I seized the opportunity to fanboyishly gush about my love for The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, calling it the band’s finest work. Yule said it was his own favorite as well. While he might be understandably biased (it was, after all, his first record with the Velvets following Lou Reed’s decision to sack John Cale in late 1968), I sensed genuine objectivity mixed with obvious pride in his assessment of the music he helped create.

320-band_ (380x262).jpgIt is Yule’s voice that opens The Velvet Underground, his guileless, high tenor setting the tone for the entire album. “What do you think I’d see/If I could walk away from me,” he sings, almost breaking on that final word in “Candy Says,” Lou Reed’s ethereal tribute to the Andy Warhol superstar Candy Darling. Yule’s words figure prominently in the extensive liner notes for Universal’s six-disc “45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition” reissue. Reed passed in 2013 and guitarist Sterling Morrison has been gone since 1995. That leaves only Yule and drummer Maureen Tucker to offer first-hand reflections on the quiet masterpiece (which they do, at length, in the illustrated book that accompanies this set). Though Tucker makes her debut as lead vocalist on the album closer “After Hours” and the entire band joins in, vocally, for the nine-minute experiment “The Murder Mystery,” the songwriting is all Lou Reed’s. With Cale out of the picture, this was Reed’s band. His singing reached a career peak (for those only familiar with the half-spoken delivery of his later years, prepare to be shocked) and his melodic instincts were seldom sharper.

320_Lou (380x323).jpgWe get three distinctly different mixes of the entire album. Disc one is the “Val Valentin Mix.” Created by engineer Valentin, this one offers more of a band-oriented sound, boasting smoother integration of the lead vocals with the instrumental elements. Disc two is the so-called “Closet Mix,” which is Lou Reed’s remix. This version was first available on CD in 1995 as part of the Peel Slowly and See box set, and the difference between it and the Valentin mix is dramatic. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the “Closet Mix” features an entirely different take of “Some Kinda Love” (an alternate “Closet Mix” of “Beginning to See the Light” is tacked on as a bonus track). Overall though, Reed’s mix emphasizes his vocals and hushes the band somewhat, resulting in an even more intimate listening experience than Valentin’s. Most exciting for longtime fans is disc three’s “Promotional Mono Mix,” issued to radio stations (to no effect) in 1969 and forgotten ever since. The mono single release, “What Goes On” (edited to nearly half its length) and “Jesus,” is included as a bonus.

309-Sterling (380x331).jpgWhile the general record-buying public ignored The Velvet Underground upon its release in 1969, Reed and the band soldiered on, recording enough material for a fourth MGM album that never materialized (their actual fourth album, Loaded, was released in 1970 on Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Cotillion). What’s astounding is the quality and commercial potential of this material, included here on disc four as “1969 Sessions.” While these recordings have all been previously available (as the mid-‘80s compilations VU and Another View), the improved fidelity here is even more dramatic than on the first and second discs. Not all of these songs were included on the Peel Slowly box set (a scant five of 14). That means tunes like “Ocean,” “Coney Island Steeplechase,” “Andy’s Chest,” and “She’s My Best Friend” have only been readily available in very dated, ‘80s-era mixes. The blanket that had long smothered these vibrant, essential performances has been finally pulled back. Disc four shimmers and plays like a full album in its own right, nearly as great as the self-titled one.

309-Moe (380x256).jpgDiscs five and six are “Live at the Matrix: November 26 & 27, 1969,” and while some of the selections were already available on 1969: Live (1974) and The Quine Tapes (2001), 11 of the 18 cuts are previously unreleased. On top of that, these are all new mixes and there has never been a clearer, sonically-fuller way to hear The Velvet Underground live (not counting the 1993 reunion album). If you’ve longed for years to hear truly listenable vintage V.U. live recordings, this stuff is liable to bring tears to your eyes (I speak from experience). Newly-released versions of “What Goes On,” “Beginning to See the Light,” and “There She Goes Again” surge forward with crackling energy. “I’m Set Free” is majestic. Tucker charms with a hesitant “After Hours.” The Quine Tapes’ “Sister Ray” boils, churns, and stomps for a marathon 38-minutes, sounding so good it’s like hearing it for the first time. If these discs don’t constitute the most thrilling, life-affirming, alive rock music ever recorded, it easily equals anything worthy of those accolades.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that. If you love The Velvet Underground, you should try to make room in your budget for the pricey The Velvet Underground - “45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition.” Oh, and Doug Yule should’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker in 1996.

Photos by Doug Yule / courtesy of Sal Mercuri Collection

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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