Graded on a Curve:
The Velvet Underground & Nico by Castle Face and Friends

The Velvet Underground’s first album is forty-five years young, and the Bay Area label Castle Face has conjured up an in-sequence various artists tribute to the beauty of that All-Time Classic. But The Velvet Underground & Nico by Castle Face and Friends manages to succeed where so many likeminded albums stumble. In tipping their collective cap to past greatness, it kicks aside the limitations of reverence and instead documents the diverse qualities of a vital pocket of rock’s current landscape. In short, it’s a very welcome surprise.

By my calculations, The Velvet Underground is easily one of the most important acts to appear in rock’s first fifteen years. Elvis was the focal point of the original impulse, The Beatles refined its essence and recalibrated its importance, The Stones greatly enhanced the possibilities of borrowed blues and R&B, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience brought an increase in heaviness, expansiveness, and smarts all at once. But the Velvets not only set the standard for rock’s relationship with the avant-garde but also (and by extension) inaugurated a sensibility of cool that had nothing to do and indeed could be at very clear odds with commercial success.

For years a huge part of The Velvet Underground’s allure stemmed directly from the fact that throughout the entirety of their existence they were actually quite unpopular, their New York art hipness being sharply off the course from the far more inclusionary strains of rock that were flowing from the era’s two most fertile locales, the UK and the West Coast of the USA. The VU had the wrong influences, were overly intellectual and chose to celebrate a variety of sex and a type of drugs, S&M and heroin specifically, that flew in the face of the period’s promotion of free love and LSD.

Unlike Dylan, who felt the need to trade one audience (the folk scene) for another (the rock one), the Velvets’ only audience while extant was a small fringe of devotees that for a long time didn’t even constitute a cult. No, The Velvet Underground was, in a nutshell, a new type of cool waiting to manifest itself in the following decade and well into the next, where significant groups of listeners defined themselves against the tide of prevailing trends and in the process set a few of their own.

By the early ‘90s however, the VU’s influence had become so entrenched that something quite unusual and distinct happened to the band. Where the legacies of Presley, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix, and Dylan were all quite secure, retroactive acceptance of the Velvets threatened shifting them into just another great group. But I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, for they’d already shifted once, morphing from an out of step nonentity to the stature of The World’s Greatest Cult Band.

Once upon a time, when somebody elected to execute a cover of a VU song, even if it wasn’t very good it also wasn’t something that fans of the Velvet’s would describe as “bad.” The very significance of the gesture insured a certain level of respect and therefore success. Those non-smitten with the group might sniff in derision, but that’s really just emblematic of how the situation once was; if one side would refuse to call a Velvet Underground cover “bad,” the other side so often found the very presence of VU influence indicative of loserism and poseurdom, and thus “bad” by default.

By the ’90s, covering a song by the Velvets didn’t really mean anything at all, except that you were a certain type of band or artist and that you had better taste than the people covering AC/DC. In 1990, Imaginary Records commenced a three volume series of Velvet Underground tributes titled Heaven and Hell that always nagged me as being underwhelming, and what’s more, a suspect idea. And I’m sure many will read that as being in the long tradition of certain listeners jumping ship and crying foul when something they hold dear becomes too popular.

If so then please let me attempt to change your mind. While those three volumes contained a fair share of covers that I thought were ill-advised or even downright bad, they also offered a few that I thought were actually pretty great. The third installment (the best of the bunch) even had one of my five favorite VU covers ever, a truly massive take of “I Heard Her Call My Name” by Half Japanese. It’s just that in the end, the whole endeavor lacked any tangible curatorial focus beyond one that was terribly blunt; that the Velvet Underground was a great band.

I’ll admit to a certain antipathy toward tribute albums in general, but in this case it really magnified the Velvet’s second shift in greatness; Bowie, Rocket from the Tombs, Peter Laughner, Big Star, Joy Division, and Cabaret Voltaire all covered VU in the ‘70s, and in every case the gesture was far more than just tackling a great song by a great band, it was about establishing individual identities of difference. What a change a post-punk revolution makes.

So here comes an in-sequence reading of the first Velvets’ LP from the folks at Castle Face Records, a San Francisco concern that’s biggest claim to notoriety is probably current garage kingpin, Ty Segall. If still a tribute album, it does a couple things to shake up the concept a bit. The first is obvious, namely venturing to explore one VU release track by track, rather than throwing a bunch of songs from all of the band’s records into one big, motley jumble. The second is that, in giving the big high-five to one of the finest discs ever recorded, something so many of us already know, it also writes a fresh and graspable chapter into the annals of one corner of the contemporary music scene.

It begins with Kelly Stoltz’s tackling “Sunday Morning.” Along with certain numbers from the transitional (but weren’t they all?) third Velvets’ record, the first cut from VU album number one has been responsible for instilling a whole lot of subsequent twee into the universe. And when twee is good, it can be really good; you’ll get no argument from me. But choosing to take the twee tack in a direct cover would sorta inevitably smack of the too obvious. Indeed, even using a female voice could be risky. So, in the fine mode of Chilton’s “Femme Fatale” (from another cult masterpiece, Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers) the gender script is flipped and the music here is more folk oriented and even a little remindful of Teenage Fanclub. So, a nice start.

Warm Soda revamps the gnarliness of “I’m Waiting for My Man” into a garage chug, along the way flaunting an attitude that recalls the descendents of Johnny Thunders. If the original is halfway between a stomp and a lament, this treatment goes all in for swagger. Closing my eyes while it plays produces the vision of a tall, overly thin dude wearing a scarf, and that’s a fine thing to see in almost every case.

Ty Segall’s version of “Femme Fatale” differs quite radically from the original, sounding like a discovery from the uncovered demo tape made by a bunch of glam-rock urchins circa the late-‘70s. The level of disregard that Segall displays toward the original bodes well for not only this song but the album as a whole, for one of the big problems with tribute albums (and for that matter, cover songs in general) is an overabundance of reverence for the source material. That’s not in evidence here. But there’s also not a whiff of piss-take to be found. Instead “Femme Fatale” underscores the malleability of the original; it’s about new possibilities, not idol worship.

On the other hand, Blasted Canyons’ “Venus in Furs” jumps headfirst into the original’s ominously decadent vibe. And because of this it’s the first song on the album really that feels directly connected to post-punk precedent. And it’s a strong reading, enhanced well by modern studio boldness, but it can’t help but be lessened a bit by its closer stylistic proximity to the source work, at least in comparison to what’s come before. Ominous decadence is really what “Venus in Furs” is all about however, so in the end its reverence isn’t really a fault.

White Fence turns “Run Run Run” into a swell bit of twisted, playful low-fi psych, with the nasal qualities of leader Tim Presley’s vocals helping to place it solidly in the appealing zone of his group’s fairly prolific recent work. Those unfamiliar might find not much more than a buzzing, bupping, floating curiosity, but it stands up pretty well to repeated listens.

As does The Fresh and Onlys’ reshaping of “All Tomorrows’ Parties.” In this case the singular beauty of Nico’s vocals really can’t be replicated, certainly not improved upon, so the band instead change the song’s focus, moving away from its fragile sadness and into the territory of big-beat guitar pop. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that fans of ‘80s Creation Records will approve.

One of the big worries when first reading about this album was what exactly would transpire regarding “Heroin.” In my younger days I considered the song to be uncoverable, and I still tend to think that its glories are simply beyond the ken of nearly anyone’s attempts at interpretation. But Burnt Ones succeed with flying colors, specifically because they choose, like Blasted Canyons above, to stick close to the original’s flawless structure, and yet they also manage through sheer intensity to not get tripped up by the mistake of studious imitation. In so doing they provide the record with its finest moment and in the process vindicate its very existence.

“There She Goes Again” by The Mallard comes off like a crunchy, garagey hunk of prime indie pop, its vibe surely assisted by femme vocals that actually do sound just a hint like Nico. And this might be a case of direct imitation, though if so that’s interesting since it was Reed that sang lead on the original. But it all ends up feeling natural in the end, lacking in affectedness or calculation; the song rocks, and is a winner.

And while on the subject of Nico, Here Comes the Here Comes’ “I’ll be Your Mirror” makes plain just how strongly shaping the unique nature of that departed chanteuse’s vocals continue to be. Where the VU version plants the focus squarely on the matchless qualities of the late Euro-queen, the reading provided here recreates the song’s musical structure very closely and adds vocals that are deliciously wispy, with the result being a gorgeous bit of fragile gal-pop that connects much differently that the original.

K. Dylan and the Black Angel’s Death Songsmen also elect to give “The Black Angel’s Death Song” the straight treatment, replicating with verve the still absorbing avant-garde gnaw of the original and in so doing they issue a powerful statement on the VU’s music, which continues to be timeless even at its most dark and bold moments. And it also reinforces the healthy creative atmosphere that surrounds this whole project, again helping to turn this tribute away from the attitudes of vanity or shallow idolizing.

Instead, the whole record is a snapshot greatly illuminating the artistic health of its participants. It ends with a fantastic take of “European Son” by heavy-hitters Thee Oh Sees, and while not as killer as Thurston Moore’s version from back in the ‘80s, it does come damn close. Plus, the addition of some non-fluffy flutes is a real treat.

“European Son” closes what’s ultimately a true rarity; The Velvet Underground & Nico by Castle Face and Friends provides the problematic tradition of the tribute album with one of its better examples. And if The Velvet Underground has essentially become just another great band, then this record is a crucial indicator that their “mere” greatness is in no danger of ever burning out.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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