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Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013

The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) (Polydor)

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 Few bands make a career-defining record the second time at bat. Then again, the Velvet Underground was no ordinary band. By the time they recorded White Light/White Heat (in two days, no less) it was clear this was not the Summer of Love. Here was a band that could make you move and make you think. But in 1968 very few folks cared.

Forty-five years down the line the album is duly hailed as the shape of things to come. High-energy music coupled with intelligent lyrics that dealt with dark themes of drug abuse, deviant sex and other taboo subject matter. Lou Reed wrote with verve about the world that spun outward from Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Polydor’s reissue treatment includes the album proper plus a handful of relevant outtakes, a mono version of the album (which is kind of overkill if you already know the album’s “fidelity”) and a seven-song set recorded live at The Gymnasium in New York in 1967, which offers further proof of how cool this band could be live.

With the title cut (an ode to shooting speed) Reed sets the tone, blasting off the album. The mono mix favors Welshman John Cale’s tenor backing vocals and jaunty piano. Things are already getting weird on cut two, “The Gift,” as the band lazily grooves behind Reed’s sublimated guitar squalls while Cale recounts the ill-fated journey of Waldo Jeffers “to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin.” A short story Reed wrote in college, Jeffers mails himself and let’s say it just doesn’t go well.

By now the casual listener has either dived in or bailed out. Stick around and you will be rewarded. The surreal “Lady Godiva’s Operation” begins as a genteel folksong with rock ’n’ roll touches and evolves into an operating-room drama where a transgender woman falls victim to a botched lobotomy as a sinister whisper intones “You are not a girl” as the song fades. With Reed and Cale’s vocals ping ponging, the narration blurs even further.

“Here She Comes Now,” the album’s most accessible song, opens with Maureen Tucker expertly lifting the sound of a Slim Harpo record on drums that sound like a rolled up newspaper slapping a wet cardboard box. As Reed rhapsodizes poetically about female impotence, Sterling Morrison offhandedly tosses in surf/blues guitar licks.

Equal parts cacophony and beauty, “I Heard Her Call My Name” is as close to perfection as rock ’n’ roll may ever get. Opening with a guitar solo that sounds like it is playing itself, the vocals echo doo wop and R&B as if played in an insane asylum and then that guitar solo returns like a planet being born. Tucker drums as if she is riding a horse. Or perhaps is the horse itself. Before a final guitar solo Reed sings “and then my mind split open.”Then he simply plays what that sounds like. 

“Sister Ray” has since become a touchstone for punk and noise rock. The album’s centerpiece, the song is a 17-minute blast of sustained energy powered by Cale’s overdriven organ and Reed’s guitar. It never gets old. Lyrically it is a miniature opera right out of Shakespeare. Boy (a sailor) meets girl (actually a boy in drag), orgy, death by misadventure, cops arrive.Same story you have heard a million times.

Of the outtakes, “Temptation Inside Your Heart” offers further evidence these folks left great songs on the cutting room floor. “Stephanie Says” earns a place in the pantheon of Reed’s non-judgmental character studies, this time as sensitive as the Left Banke’s chamber-pop. “Hey Mr. Rain,” a semi-successful paring of Cale’s drone with Tucker’s swinging drums, would be resurrected as a highpoint of the live recording from the Velvets’ 1993 reunion tour.

The bonus live set finds the Velvets stretching out as only they could.These were not clichéd “jams, man!” a la the Grateful Dead or some white boy blues band. Anchored by Tucker’s locomotive drumming, the band rode on a protean wheelhouse.

Could be there are still folks doubting the Velvets as the greatest band of all time. If so, this reissue takes another stride in sealing the deal. Reed had the final word on White Light/White Heat: “No one listened to it. But there it is, forever—the quintessence of articulated punk. And no one goes near it.”