I’m about to put my rock critic credibility on the line, but I see no reason to lie: The Velvet Underground did not change my life as a kid, did not act as the band that inspired me to become a musician, and did not become the soundtrack to my high school life.
I didn’t totally understand what all the fuss was about when it came to the VU. Everyone I encountered who felt the need to preach the band’s gospel to me seemed overly serious, eager to prove how “different” they were, convinced that the VU was “really a much more important band than the Beatles,” and so forth. These cats never smiled. They never seemed to be having any fun. I liked fun, so I preferred Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal” to “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. I thought the guitar playing was far superior.
Most rock freaks and audiophiles of my generation would like the world to believe they were reading Lester Bangs’ scribblings in Creem Magazine when they were barely out of diapers, were waiting with bated breath to hear what emerged from CBGBs and the New York punk scene by the time they were 10, and were spending untold hours cranking Reed’s unlistenable “Metal Machine Music” behind their locked bedroom doors by the time they were juniors in high school. The urge to rewrite one’s own history is a strong one, but I have to be honest – I loved the Doors much more than the Stooges, I preferred Led Zeppelin to Television, and I thought Joni Mitchell was a better musician than Patti Smith. Also, I loved Rush and Yes. So yeah, I was a nerd, long before being a nerd was something that a young person aspired toward.
Then came college. And that summer between high school and college, Bowie. Bowie – brilliant, a little bit frightening, a real musician, but also, a real alternative to the mainstream – became my gateway drug, my point of entry to the world of the Velvet Underground. (The Stooges, too.) Bowie mentioned the VU repeatedly in interviews. My curiosity was piqued. Then I met a bunch of musicians at college, and they loved the Smiths, early R.E.M., Echo & the Bunnymen. I heard a lot that I liked in the music of these bands. And they, like Bowie, seemed to be urging me to reconsider the Velvet Underground.
So I did. And at last, I got it. This was pre-punk art-rock, a dangerous and decidedly European and yes, drug-addled form of street poetry and “anyone can do it” rock ’n’ roll. I still wondered why the guitars were out of tune, but I’d seen – well, not the light, but the dark.
That said, my favorite VU album was not the opiated lull of “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” nor the garagey din of “White Light/White Heat.” No, I favored the redheaded stepchild of the bunch, the final VU effort, the one the hipsters generally regard as the least awesome of the bunch - “Loaded”. 25 years after graduating college, I still feel the same way. “Loaded” is the one for me, because the tunes are super catchy, there are vocal harmonies – and they’re actually in tune! – and Reed the lyricist is turning some seriously heavy and on-point lines in just about every tune.
“Loaded Re-Loaded: The 45th Anniversary Edition” (Rhino) is now available as a single-disc version that adds a few bonus tracks to the original album, and distills the essence of the 6-disc “Loaded” box set that hit the streets in early November. Buy it for a friend. Better yet, buy a ton of them, and hand them out for free to patrons as they emerge from any concert that operates beneath the banner “Kerfuffle.” It’s the least you can do for the children.
30th Century Blues
We know Brian Burton as Danger Mouse, a musician and producer with impeccable credentials. Burton was one half of post-hip-hop/soul duo Gnarls Barkley, the other half taking the form of some dude known as CeeLo; as a producer, he’s worked with everyone from Beck and the Black Keys to U2 and Adele; As a musician, he’s done stellar work with James Mercer of the Shins, beneath the moniker Broken Bells.
It stands to reason, then, that Burton would have impeccable taste in music. That turns out to be the case. Last year, Burton formed his own imprint, 30th Century Records, to be distributed by Columbia Records, and in the time since, he has been working with mostly young and relatively unknown bands, artists he feels are worthy of time and attention, both his and ours.
Now, we have the first release on Burton’s label, “30th Century Records Volume 1,” a catch-all sampler of artists who will release new music via Burton’s largesse in the coming year. The sampler offers a stunning collection of forward-looking indie artists, many of whom might fit beneath the contemporary psychedelia umbrella. My favorites here are crafted by bands I would not have heard of if not for Burton, among them Nine Pound Shadow, Autolux and Jock Gang. There’s also the already proven commodity that is Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach’s side project the Arcs, who offer up the eminently lovable “Fool’s Gold” here.
Hats off to Burton for putting his Adele money to good use.
Check out 30thcenturyrecords.com.
Coldplay: Warmed-over clichés
Coldplay was recently announced as the halftime entertainment act for Super Bowl 50. I couldn’t even bother to get worked up about it. The British band is safe as milk, and about as exciting as a warm glass of the stuff on a Friday night. They don’t even seem to be worth getting angry at anymore.
Recently, I tried to take myself back to the days of the band’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” when singer Chris Martin seemed more concerned with making at least mildly interesting alternative pop than with hanging around Jay Z and Beyonce and showing up on awards shows bouncing about the stage like an inflatable ponce begging to be deflated. I couldn’t do it, though. The ship has sailed, and whatever credibility Coldplay had has sailed with it.
Witness the band’s bid for its seventh straight platinum album, “A Head Full of Dreams” (Atlantic) a collection that makes previous Coldplay efforts sound positively groundbreaking by comparison. Coldplay has always been U2-lite. Now, they’ve stooped to becoming Coldplay-lite.
If you desire clichés of both the musical and lyrical variety; if you think U2’s “Songs of Innocence” is a far better album than “The Joshua Tree”; if you just can’t get enough of those wordless shout along choruses that sound like they were penned specifically for British football matches – well, this is the album for you.
Everyone else is likely to find “A Head Full of Dreams” to be a snooze-fest. It’s full of assembly-line contemporary alt-pop ditties, and it’s incredibly boring. Even when it strives to be daring, in terms of arrangements and manipulations of sounds, it still comes across as a primer in everything that is wrong with today’s alt-pop – faceless, edgeless and joyless, it’s the musical equivalent of a fizzy soft drink.
A diet one, at that.