Thursday, May 6, 2021

A deep dive into Lou Reed's catalog: The filler material

1983: Back-cover photo for Legendary Hearts

They can't all be gems, right? Thus far, we've gone through the real meat of Lou Reed's catalog of 22 studio albums, past the halfway mark into what I consider his 13 best.

Today, we're going to look at the five I consider lightweight, filler material. These albums are the back end of the bullpen, the taxi squad, the roster fillers. They're good enough to step up in an pinch, capable of delivering now and then when the regulars need a break. But they aren't the sort you want to turn to on a daily basis.

All five of these albums are worth a listen now and then. There's still enough meat on the bones to make the pick worthwhile. They all exist for a reason -- there is a purpose behind each one. But none of them would ever be considered for the Lou Reed Hall of Fame.

No. 14. Growing Up in Public (April 1980):
Reed's 10th studio album, the last of four on Arista Records, was a transitional album for Reed. He recorded this in the weeks before he got married to Sylvia Morales, turning his back on the craziness of his youth and young adulthood. He is jettisoning the debauched Lou Reed character he had been portraying for several years and is becoming Mr. Lou Reed. Growing Up in Public is the last album Reed recorded as the frontman of a big band -- keyboardist Michael Fonfara, drummer Michael Sukorsky, guitarist Chuck Hammer, bassist Ellard Boles and guitarist Stuart Heinrich all appear on a Lou Reed album for the final time after several years touring and recording with him. It's an interesting album to listen to now and then. Reed, as always, has his heart on his sleeve with songs like "How Do You Speak to an Angel?" "Think it Over," "Love is Here to Stay." He even makes a last-gasp effort to hold onto some of his bad habits with "The Power of Positive Drinking." The compositions, however, are rather pedestrian and uninspiring, resulting in the end in one of the more forgettable records of Reed's earlier career.

No. 15. Rock and Roll Heart (October 1976):
Reed's seventh album and first for Arista is even more forgettable and uninspiring. Rock and Roll Heart is a collection of fairly simple rock-and-roll ditties that don't say much of anything. Many of the songs on this album contain one or two lines of lyrics repeated over catchy rock-and-roll riffs. Marty Fogel's sax solos and a guest vocal turn by Reed's college pal Garland Jeffreys on "You Wear it So Well" make this album worth a few listens. It's a nice, danceable record that might stick with you a little longer than a fistful of cotton candy. But it's very lightweight Lou Reed, just something that filled time between Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle.

No. 16. Legendary Hearts (March 1983):
His 12th album and second in his return to RCA, Legendary Hearts was probably the most disappointing Lou Reed album to me. It definitely was to guitarist Robert Quine. This was the followup to The Blue Mask, featuring the same band that made that one such a powerful album. Quine and bassist Fernando Saunders were back, with Fred Maher replacing Doane Perry on drums. The story has it that when Quine received his preview copy of the finished album, he was so pissed that he grabbed a hammer and smashed the cassette to bits. Reed was the producer on this album, and he buried Quine's guitar so far down in the mix that it is mostly undetectable, a far cry from the twin guitar attack that made The Blue Mask so special. These are all fine guitar rock songs, though nothing particularly special to my ears. "Martial Law" is a highlight, the only track where you can clearly hear Quine's playing. The video at the bottom of this post has this band tearing it up on that song. 

No. 17. Lou Reed (June 1972):
The debut was a dud. A couple years after Reed left the Velvet Underground, RCA staff producer Richard Robinson took him to London to record with a motley collection of session musicians including guitarist Steve Howe and keyboard player Rick Wakeman of Yes. They recorded two new Reed songs -- "Going Down" and "Berlin" -- and a handful of leftover VU tunes. The venture turned out to be a disaster. It was a bunch of incompatible musicians running through some second-rate material, and it was all recorded very badly. Nobody knows for sure what happened -- the most prevalent story is that Robinson screwed up the master tapes somehow in the process of applying Dolby filters. The bottom line is that the mix on these tracks are muddy and compressed. Still, this was Lou Reed, who had made a name for himself among the music industry, and RCA was eager to get him out there, as a prestige act if nothing else. So they released this mess, and it went nowhere. Fortunately for Reed, he had his signature on a multi-record contract and a label mate in London who was breaking through at the time was a big fan and offered to help. The historical significance makes a listen or two worthwhile -- and it's interesting in retrospect to hear what Reed did with some of these songs that resurfaced more than a decade later on some VU outtake compilations.

No 18. Mistrial (May 1986):
Reed's 14th album, his 10th and final studio album in two stints with RCA, was a nice try that ultimately didn't work. The songs are decent. But the sterile 1980s-style production with synths and drum machines is such a washout, not what you want to hear in a Lou Reed album. It's worth your time to hear a couple of these songs. "The Original Wrapper" is Reed's tongue-in-cheek take on rap, which he slyly suggests he invented. "Tell it to Your Heart" is a nice uplifting way to close the record. This is Lou trying to appeal to the MTV synth-pop crowd, an experiment that didn't work particularly well but immediately preceded a turn-of-the-decade creative peak.

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