critic’s pick 310: the velvet underground, ‘white light/white heat’

velvet undergroundThe curve ball thrown to the pop mainstream by The Velvet Underground at the onset of 1968 packed a sting as potent as it was unexpected. Following a debut record (The Velvet Underground and Nico) that balanced tuneful, even romantic sensibilities with the kinds of New York street sagas frontman Lou Reed would use to define his own career in the decades to come, White Light/While Heat stepped assuredly into the darkness. It was low-fi and rudimentary in a way that seemed to forecast the punk revolution a good seven years before it happened.

The album returns to us this winter in two editions that mark the 45th anniversary of its release. The first is a two disc set that boasts a stereo mix with seven alternate takes, mixes and extras that sound far less brutish than the actual album. Highlights include two readings of the incantatory Hey Mr. Rain with the reedy desperation of Reed’s vocals weaving in and around John Cale’s spiral-like runs on viola.

The real find, though, is a bonus concert disc cut at The Gymnasium in New York the spring before White Light was made. While never what one could call a virtuoso live act, the Velvets are captured here in a state of musical teething, transitioning from an artful, Andy Warhol protégé act to the unrepentant, anarchical outfit that produced White Heat.

A second edition adds a third disc dominated by a mono mix of the album and additional outtakes. The two disc version was reviewed here.

It’s easy today to view Sister Ray as the watershed achievement of the original White Light album and its newly excavated live prequel. The song stands as an early milestone for the then-young Reed who leads a coarse, unrelenting jam around a tale of a New York drag queen. But Cale’s The Gift, a spoken story recited over a steady ensemble squall about a jilted introvert beset by jealousy who mails himself to his former beloved with disastrous consequences, winds up being equally sordid.

This reissue of White Light shouldn’t be viewed as a requiem for Reed, who died in October, nor should the record serve as an introduction to his music for anyone unfamiliar with it. But for those willing to take a walk on the seriously wild side, this powerfully spruced up White Light is your ticket. Brace yourself for a bumpy ride.

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