Monday, April 12, 2021

A deep dive into Lou Reed's catalog: The best of the rest

1980: Lou and Sylvia on their wedding day

I wrote earlier about the four studio albums I consider the most important of the 22 Lou Reed released in his solo career. I called them essential albums, those that must be heard by anyone who wants to explore Reed's post-Velvet Underground career.

Next up are four albums I want to call the Best of the Rest. Precisely, these are my favorite Lou Reed albums that I do not consider essential listening. If you have listened to the four essentials and want to dive further into Reed's catalog, these are the four that will confirm or deny your compatibility with the man and his music.

Ranked according to my affinity for each album:

5. The Blue Mask (February 1982):
This is my favorite Lou Reed album, has been since the first time I heard it. No equivocation on this at all: The Blue Mask would be my desert-island Lou Reed album. I tried to list this as an essential, but the analytical side of me wouldn't let me do it because the impact of this album doesn't reach far beyond Reed and his fans. This one is strictly personal. The Blue Mask is all about Lou Reed finding his center, both in his personal life and in his music.

Reed found two exceptional collaborators leading up to his 11th studio album, his first back in the RCA Records fold after a four-album run at Arista Records. Sylvia Morales, whom he married in 1980, inspired him to get sober and adopt tai chi as a spiritual discipline. And Ex-Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine, a lifelong Velvet Underground superfan, helped Reed get back to the basics with his music. Enough with the dark cartoon performance art, Quine convinced him: Pick up your damn guitar and be the rock-and-roll deity everyone expects you to be. And that's pretty much what Lou did. Obviously Reed continued fighting his demons until the day he died in 2013 -- he eventually had bitter separations from both Quine and Sylvia. But this path those two put him on stayed in pretty clear focus for the rest of Lou's days.

The music and the performance on The Blue Mask are phenomenal. There's a distinct duality to this record -- some of the songs were written during the rough going of Reed's drying out ("Underneath the Bottle," "Waves of Fear," "The Blue Mask"), some came out of the bliss of his new marriage and fresh life perspective ("Our House," "Women," "Heavenly Arms"). All of them are delivered on the simmering, chiming, screeching guitars of Reed on the right channel and Quine on the left -- with Fernando Saunders' bass and Doane Perry's drums holding the bottom for all of it. This really is a glorious set of songs, the best Reed ever put together for my money.

6. Songs for Drella (with John Cale) (April 1990):
The two former Velvet Underground buddies bumped into each other at a memorial service for Andy Warhol in April 1987 and decided to work together on a piece about their mentor. Previous commitments and long-open wounds contributed to numerous delays, but Reed and Cale finally did finish the work in time to perform it four times at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November and December 1989. They returned to BAM later in December to perform it without an audience for a video recording, and recorded the album in a couple of weeks after that. They had planned to take Songs for Drella on tour in 1990 but decided that would require too much time together and abandoned that idea. This collaboration, though, was the seed for a 1993 reunion tour for The Velvet Underground that was cut short by animosity before it got to the U.S.

Despite the persistent interpersonal issues, Reed and Cale delivered a brilliant album that covers all the touchpoints of Warhol's life and career. There's not a whole lot going on here musically. Reed sits in a chair and plays a blistering electric guitar while Cale bangs away at his pianos and takes a turn on his viola a couple of times. Reed sings a majority of the songs, with Cale taking vocal lead on about a third of them. This is the creative forces behind The Velvet Underground "unplugged" -- nothing fancy, no bass guitar, no drums, no enhancements of any sort. Just two old frenemies paying heartfelt tribute to a fallen idol.

7. Coney Island Baby (December 1975):
Coming off the disaster that was Metal Machine Music, which stretched the limits of the fan base Reed had been building and the patience of his record company, Lou had one more album to deliver to RCA. And Coney Island Baby, his sixth studio album, proved to be one hell of a rebound. This was the first time Reed turned his songwriting fully inward, resulting in the most beatifully romantic and nostalgic album of his career. The title track is an incredibly sweet remembrance of his high-school days explicitly dedicated to his new love, Rachel Humphreys. "This one goes out to Lou and Rachel and all the kids at P.S. 192. I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you," Reed recites over the outro, closing this record in a breathtaking moment.

1975: Lou and Rachel pose for a portrait by Mick Rock

Twenty-one-year-old Godfrey Diamond started his long career as a record producer with Coney Island Baby, a hell of a debut. His crisp, clean, clear production leaves room for everyone in this band of career session musicians to shine. Bob Kulick's lead guitar, especially on the title track, is brilliantly melodic, perfect for this batch of songs. "She's My Best Friend" is a VU leftover reworked to be a key piece in this soundscape. Another VU leftover, Doug Yule, rejoined his ex-bandmate in the tour for this album.

8. The Bells (April 1979):
This one, Reed's ninth studio album and third for Arista, was difficult for me to categorize. I never considered it an essential, but went back and forth on whether it should go here or in the next section. I finally decided to give it some points for the sheer courage of this record. It's Lou's followup to the essential Street Hassle, during the period when the thirtysomething Lou was in his overdue transition into adulthood. As part of that, Reed decided to expand his horizons by inviting other people into his songwriting process and to leave much of the recording to fate. He and Nils Lofgren co-wrote a few songs via long-distance, exchanging demo tapes and handwritten notes through the postal service. Three of those songs landed on The Bells, and two of them landed on Lofgren's album Nils, produced by old Reed friend Bob Ezrin. On Reed's album, pianist Michael Fonfara, trumpeter Don Cherry, sax player Marty Fogel and bass player Ellard Boles get co-writing credits on one song each. Another song, "Disco Mystic," is credited to Reed, Boles, Fogel, Fonfara and drummer Michael Sukorsky. Only one song on the album, "Looking for Love," is credited solely to Reed.

The songs on this album are all over the place, with some degree of jazz-influenced improvisation as a common thread. Reed tries out several different vocal styles, some of them good, some of them bad, all of them interesting. The title track, which closes the album, is a nine-plus-minute instrumental improvisation with Cherry's trumpet and Fogel's sax flying all around and Reed improvising lyrics in the closing couple of minutes. This album is not for the uninitiated -- it's a challenging listen. But if you've come with me to this point in Reed's catalog, The Bells is quite something to behold.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Spammers will not be tolerated. You casino scammers will be reported immediately and your comments deleted.