Wednesday, March 9, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 247: Lou Reed

For those wondering, 'where the hell is the next review?', rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I am still on track to pull into the auditory equivalent of Ithaca in a few years, it is just the last album was rather long.

So long, in fact, I decided to skip my usual practice of listening to the news on the way to work this morning just so I could finish listening to it on the drive home.

And so, here it is.

Disc 247 is...NYC Man: The collection
Artist: Lou Reed

Year of Release: 2008

What’s Up With The Cover?: It is a picture of Lou Reed belting out a tune and looking cool because that is what Lou Reed does.

How I Came To Know It: I knew a couple of Velvet Underground hits all my life, and I had this great tape years ago that had a whole bunch of classics, including "Sweet Jane", "Walk On The Wild Side", and "Heroin". It also had this cool early song, "Pale Blue Eyes". After I sold the tape, for years I looked for a CD that had all the classics, but it had to have these four songs in particular. You'd be surprised how long it took (with "Pale Blue Eyes" usually the sticking point). I finally found this one in 2004 and bought it right away, heedless of just how many other songs were on it.

How It Stacks Up: This is a 'best of' and so can't stack up. Moreover, it is the only Lou Reed I own. I used to have "Dirty Boulevard" on tape and liked it, but likely won't buy it again. Maybe one day I'll get "Transformer" which is admittedly a rock classic.

Rating: best ofs don't stack up - even after four days of brainwashing in the car, I know my Odyssey rights!

This album was a bit of a haul to get through. Put simply, just a little too much Lou Reed/Velvet Underground in one go. It is a two CD set, with a total of 31 songs, many of them of the lengthy variety.

While I usually gripe about overlong albums (and just did again, in a way), you have to cut some slack to an artist when you buy something called an 'anthology' or a 'collection'. By definition, these kind of compilations tend to be a little bit more comprehensive.

So with this in mind, I'll say no more about it and get to the music.

Wasn't Lou Reed cool as a fallen angel/artist in that German movie about angels many years ago? I really believed him in the role - the guy is a pretty good actor, as well as being an accomplished visual artist and musician.

OK, now I'll get to the music, scout's honour.

Lou Reed has been making music since the late 1960s, and has left a significant mark on alternative rock and punk music that I don't think can be easily summed up by an anthology of 31 songs, much less by this little slice of a review, but they don't not-pay me to publish a blank entry.

The first thing that jumps out is the range to the music. Reed switches from understated melodic pieces with exquisite guitar ("Pale Blue Eyes") to catchy rock riffs that remain timeless forty years later ("Sweet Jane") and into punk songs full of distortion and reverb ("White Light/White Heat" that went on to influence a generation of east coast punk bands in the seventies).

My knowledge of Lou Reed albums is extremely limited, but having had a previous 'best of' on tape, a number of these tracks were recognizeable. I also knew "Dirty Boulevard" from the album of the same name. As late Lou Reed goes, "Dirty Boulevard" is a pretty sweet track, and I recall it even being a minor hit in 1989 or 1990.

It is a song much like his earlier work, in that it captures the lives of the down and out in all their grim majesty. Much like Tom Waits, Reed has a special ability to talk about the type of person that society mostly considers forgettable, and ensures we remember them.

The difference is that Waits' characters always seem like they are pulled from a dimestore novel - they have a charm that is somehow separate from their reality. Reed's street characters are all grit, and little glory. Grim poverty clings to their stories, even when they are ostensibly enjoying themselves (often by shooting up drugs).

On this listen, I was struck by the 1973 song, "Caroline Says II" about an abused woman in such a life.

"Caroline says
As she gets up off the floor
'Why is it that you beat me
It isn't any fun.'

"Caroline says
As she makes up her eye
'You ought to learn more about yourself
Think more than just 'I''

"But she's not afraid to die
All of her friends call her Alaska
When she takes speed
They laugh and ask her
What is in her mind"

Lou Reed tells you just what is in her mind, but as a listener you almost wish he hadn't. At the same time, he helps sensitize you to the next time you see someone down and out just why they might be like they are. He shocks you into noticing things that many people walk by every day without a second thought.

Another song that stood out from the ordinary this time around was "The Last Shot", which is from the 1983 album "Legendary Hearts." This is a song about addiction, and trying to give something up - in this case alcohol, although the song later relates obliquely to heroin. Whatever the drug of choice, it provides the unique regret of the addict trying to kick their habit. I love the double meaning of the chorus:

"When you quit, you quit
But you always wish
That you knew it was your last shot."

This is the wish that you wish you savoured that last drink more, and at the same time, the uncertainty that it actually will be. On top of this, "The Last Shot" is a great rock song, with a kick ass riff.

These are the brilliant moments on this record, but at times I found myself trapped in an overlong noodle fest. Such as in "The Bells" a song that immediately follows "The Last Shot" and is over 9 minutes of saxophone noodling, murmuring and guitar drone. "I Wanna Be Black" is more noodling - this time the blues version, clocking in at 6:30 and making me want to throw the disc out the window of the car. For every brilliantly used eight plus minutes ("Heroin" or "Street Hassle") there is one of these little self-indulgent turds.

Overall, I both enjoyed and admired NYC Man. I could've used about ten less songs, but every anthology that short was missing "Pale Blue Eyes" and so I took a deeper dive to get what I wanted. If it felt a little hard to breathe from time time to time, I don't regret the pearls thus uncovered.

Best tracks: Sweet Jane, Rock and Roll, I'm Waiting For the Man, Street Hassle, Caroline Says II, Walk on the Wild Side, Vicious, Legendary Hearts, Heroin, The Last Shot, Dirty Blvd., Pale Blue Eyes


Sheila said...

The movie was Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" - however, Lou Reed wasn't in it (checked IMDB to be sure).

Logan said...

I was actually thinking of the sequel to "Wings of Desire" which is 1993's "Faraway, So Close" which features Lou Reed - you get to zoom into his thoughts as he's working on some poetry. It is a minor roll, but a memorable part of the film - at least for me. It also features Peter Falk as himself.