Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: The Super Deluxe Edition of 'The Velvet Underground and Nico'

The Velvet Underground and Nico was one of the two most important albums of 1967, arguably the most important year for the LP in Rock history. It is the year that the album once and for all replaced the single as Rock’s chief medium. With such a distinction, and such incredible music, The Velvet Underground and Nico is easily deserving of one of those multi-disc, “super deluxe editions” that maximize profits on a band’s back catalogue. There’s no question that everything in this new six-disc set deserves release. The Velvet’s debut is presented in both its original stereo and mono mixes expanded with bonus mixes, several of which appeared on singles (believe it or not, even the most underground group played that game… not that it gave them any hits). There’s a disc of even more alternate mixes, a few alternate takes, and some rehearsals. There’s Nico’s debut album Chelsea Girl, on which Lou Reed and John Cale provided much material and musical accompaniment. Rarest of all are the two discs capturing a set at Ohio’s Valleydale Ballroom recorded in November 1966.

Oddly, the two discs featuring the album are the most troubled. The stereo mix sounds quieter and less punchy than my old Polygram version from 1996. I commend the producers for not mastering the new set with an excess of volume, a trend that has ruined its share of twenty-first century reissues, but that ’96 mastering job wasn’t overly loud, so the new one sounds comparatively weak. One might expect a record as dense as The Velvet Underground and Nico to get a boost in mono, but the vocals are mixed too loud, sacrificing the instruments and quite a bit of the power. The bonus mixes included on these two discs are really only interesting for the sake of completeness, because it isn’t likely any fan is going to go crazy over a drastically edited version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or a mix of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” that loses the group’s lovely backing harmonies.

The remaining four discs are the ones that make this super deluxe set. Chelsea Girl, a beautiful album that catches Nico in a brief mainstream phase before she went completely insular with the challenging and terrifying Marble Index, has not been remastered since 1990. The new version isn’t a massive improvement, but it is an improvement. The alternates pulled from an acetate and an early ’66 rehearsal session on Disc Four are never better than the familiar versions, but most are significantly different enough to fascinate. There are also a few interesting demos for song sketches that didn’t make it to the record, the most substantial being the 11-minute–plus Bo Diddley-style jam “Miss Joanie Lee”. The most valuable may be a Nico-sung version of "There's She Goes Again". Most monumental of all is that Valleydale Ballroom set, which shows that the Velvets’ studio LPs only hinted at how outrĂ© they could get. Aside from an extended run though of “Run, Run, Run”, most of their songs from their debut are not tremendously different from the studio incarnations. However, there are two nearly thirty minute improvisations—one grinding and assaultive, one serene and hypnotic as a sunrise—that are more demanding than anything you’ve ever heard from The Velvet Underground. For those with an excess of patience, they can be quite rewarding too.

Worthy of mention too is Ritchie Unterberger’s booklet essay, though this is really an hors d’oeuvre compared to his White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day. Any fan hardcore enough to shell out the dollars to get the super deluxe Velvet Underground and Nico has no excuse for not owning this amazing book.

Get the Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground and Nico at Amazon.com here.

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