Monday, August 15, 2011

Covering Our Bases - The Velvet Underground

You shoulda seen 'em then...
Certain bands are so influential that they become touchstones in the history of popular music. There are few better ways of measuring a band's influence than the amount of nods it gets via covers. Since nothing gets On Warmer Music going like a good cover, we'll take some time to look at those bands.

The Velvet Underground are perhaps the classic cult band. Formed by Andy Warhol in 1966 around Lou Reed, they released four classic albums that combined lyrics about deviant sex, hard drug use and arty pretensions with a mixture of vicious noise freakouts and poppy gems. It's been hoarily said that "they didn't sell many albums, but everyone who bought one went on to form a band" but by the last decade they were such a hip influence that Eddie Argos from Art Brut complained that he didn't "want to hear the sound of the Velvet Underground a second time around". That notwithstanding, the Velvets are founding fathers (/mothers) of the very idea of "indie rock" and today we've got some proof.

There She Goes Again – R.E.M. Buy it.
R.E.M. were posterboys for the emerging 80's American underground and, like so many bands of that movement, they wore their love of the Velvets on their sleeves. Though they would release many VU covers over the years, this one came as a B-Side to their debut single "Radio Free Europe". It's a straightforward take on one of most musically straightforward songs on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Lou Reed's menacing lyrics seem almost secondary with Michael Stipe's nasal delivery and this version goes down as solid, sugary jangle-pop.

Femme Fatale – Big Star Buy it.
Speaking of formative influences on the 80's underground, Big Star managed to be both VU accolytes AND 80's pop godfathers. Their final album Third/Sister Lovers was clearly influenced heavily by Lou Reeds mixture of pretty melodies with dark lyrics a la The Velvet Undergound. It's no surprise that Third contains a beautiful cover of the originally Nico-sung "Femme Fatale". Alex Chilton keeps the soft orchestration and background but adds a female backing chorus cooing "elle est une femme fatale" to give it a uniquely sophisticated air. 

After Hours – Rilo Kiley Buy it.
I've always had a soft spot for this song. The ode to after hours bars was originally sung by drummer Moe Tucker and it closed The Velvet Underground. It was originally a light acoustic ditty with a cooing vocal where Moe longs to be able to stay forever drunk and in the dark rather than face the harsh realities of day. Jenny Lewis and her band give the song a full band kick including a fun sound collage to emphasize the song's plea to "close the door" and shut out the world.

All Tomorrow’s Parties – Calexico and Iron & Wine Buy some.
Before Sam Beam added a full band to back his folky, Iron & Wine project, he teamed with Arizona folk / punk / mariachi savants Calexico for an EP and a tour. This cover was a live favorite and for good reason. "All Tomorrow's Parties" has become an indie touchstone and a concert series but it was originally a touching ode a poor girl trying to survive in Manhattan's expensive party scene without the wisdom or wardrobe to quite pull it off. This version is basically a sonic teardown of the original and it shows that, in the right hands, a complete reimagining of a great song can be a wonderful thing.

Rock and Roll - The Runaways Buy it.
One of the great paens to radio and the joy of musical escape, the original version of "Rock and Roll" was a breezy shoulda-been FM classic. A mere half-decade later, Joan Jett and her Runaways gave the original a kick teeth with their trademark ladies cock-rock treatment. This is definitely for the AM crowd and there's nothing wrong with that. All the blistering intensity and fun of 80s hair metal without the lazy chops or soullessness.

What Goes On – The Feelies Buy it.
The Feelies managed to out cult-band the Velvet Underground in terms of the ratio of press coverage and album sales to great music and are only now starting to get their due, some thirty years after their debut album was released. This cover closed their third album, 1988's Only Life and it takes the the jangle of the original, ups the tempo and adds some acoustic touches. I can say from first hand experience that this version is still as driving and entrancing now as it was two decades ago.

Sweet Jane - Cowboy Junkies Buy it.
"Sweet Jane" is an all-time great rock 'n roll singalong but true fans know that that's partially because the version originally released on Loaded was edited to remove a down-tempo final verse before the chorus. When the Cowboy Junkies went into Toronto's Holy Trinity Cathedral late one November night in 1987 to record their after hours masterpiece The Trinity Session, they recorded songs by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and... this rarely-heard version of "Sweet Jane". Their take sounds nothing like the original but is nevertheless brilliant.

Velvet Underground - Jonathon Richman Buy it.
Another I, Jonathon hit, "Velvet Underground" isn't a cover, so much as it is a tribute (although he does break into the riff from "Sister Ray" on and off). Richman nails the sound and ethos of this formative band to a t. Soncially, he's spot-on recounting "a spooky tone on a Fender bass" or "twangy sounds of the cheapest types / stark and bold like black and white stripes". Indeed, this is a great way to remember "a rock 'n roll band but not like the rest / and to me, America at its best". I'll second that.

And get some of those Velvet Underground albums while you're at it.

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