Music Review: The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat (45th Anniversary Edition)

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One the final projects of Lou Reed’s life was the preparation of a special edition of The Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light/White Heat, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of its original release. Working with John Cale, who parted ways with the band following the completion of the album, Reed helped develop the three-disc “super deluxe” set. Also included is a 56-page hardcover book featuring rare photos and extensive liner notes by David Fricke.

Picking up where The Velvet Underground & Nico’s “Run Run Run” and “European Son” left off, White Light/White Heat remains every bit as chaotically scuzzy as it was in 1968. With only “Here She Comes Now” providing a somewhat of a brief, gentle reprieve from the aural assault, it’s not hard to see why Reed called the record “the Statue of Liberty of punk.” The absolute antithesis of their equally great, self-titled 1969 third album, White Light offers a churning mass of distorted, wailing, feeding-generating guitars (courtesy of Reed and Sterling Morrison), mixed with Cale’s droning viola and organ, and driven by Maureen Tucker’s drumming.

Disc one presents the original album’s stereo mix and it’s as good as the album has ever sounded. White Light was always a thick, murky, grungy soup. It’s been remastered before, but this edition allows for its many layers to be heard more clearly. It’s as clean as this deliberately dirty-sounding classic is ever likely to get. As for the bonus tracks, though labeled an “alternate take,” “I Heard Her Call My Name” just sounds like a different mix of the album version (albeit notably different). Five Cale-era tracks that original surfaced in the mid-‘80s on the compilations V.U. and Another View are placed in their proper context. “Temptation Inside Your Heart” and especially “Stephanie Says” have truly never sounded this crisp and nuanced. The two previously-released versions of “Hey Mr. Rain” are presented in new mixes. The real gem is an early version of “Beginning to See the Light,” boasting different lyrics, a slower tempo, and the presence of Cale.

Velvet Underground_Universal2 (380x293).jpgThe second disc contains the album’s mono mix, for those who prefer White Light a bit more concentrated in its fury. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the angry hornet of buzzing guitars, led by Reed’s groundbreaking lead, on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The subtly different single mixes of the title track and “Here She Comes Now” are thrown in for good measure. As for “The Gift,” Reed’s darkly comic short story about the fate of lovelorn Waldo Jeffers (narrated by Cale), there’s no more need to flip the balance to the right or left in an attempt minimize either the vocals or instruments. Disc two gives us the chance to hear Cale’s recitation alone, unaccompanied by music, as well as the band’s churning, savage instrumental backing on its own.

Though a pair of tracks, the instrumental “Booker T.” and a non-instrumental “Guess I’m Falling in Love” (the vocal-free studio version is on disc one), were included on the Peel Slowly and See box set, disc three holds the first official release of the complete “Live at the Gymnasium, NYC, April 30, 1967” concert. The live show, which has previously circulated amongst collectors via bootlegs, was sourced from a tape provided by Cale. The highlights are “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” (“That was probably one of those songs made up on the spot, never to resurface again from us,” Reed recalls in the liner notes) and a 19-minute “Sister Ray.” Compared to some of the other legitimately-issued live Velvet Underground recordings, the fidelity here is pretty solid.

Though it’s by no means a treasure chest of previously unavailable material, obvious care was invested in this deluxe reissue of one of rock’s most influential masterpieces. For those wishing to own the best sounding, most extensively annotated edition of White Light/White Heat, look no further. The 45th anniversary super deluxe edition will be available from Universal Music Enterprises on December 10, 2013.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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