Friday, November 22, 2013

Reviewing every Lou Reed live album

No surprise, but I've been listening to a lot of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground lately.  Reed and David Bowie were probably the most famous musical chameleons of the 70's, changing their music and personal style with nearly every album, and continuing to reinvent themselves in the following decades.  But whereas Bowie seemed to glide effortlessly from strength to strength (even his "sellout" album "Let's Dance" brought him the biggest hits and commercial success of his career, Reed's "Mistrial" and "New Sensations", not so much), Reed was as notorious for his misses as he was for his home runs.  "Metal Machine Music" is the most well known of these, but he certainly didn't get soft in his later years.  His collaboration with Metallica, "LULU" was the last album he worked on and it was almost universally panned (as if Reed could give a fuck ... and you have to admire that).  His failures are actually an integral part of his charm and stature as a person and an artist.

The same holds true for his live albums.  Until his death, I hadn't realised he'd released so many.  These range from good and possibly incendiary ("A Night With Lou Reed") to the polarizing ("Rock and Roll Animal") to the often ridiculed ("Take No Prisoners").  He performed with stripped down, semi-acoustic ensembles and full on RnR revues.  I sometimes wonder how he found the time to overhaul his live show and rehearse all these bands, especially in the 70's when he was a walking talking drug disaster waiting to happen.  But that was Reed -- always reinventing himself and never content to coast on his fame. 

I haven't heard most of Lou Reed's live albums, so these reviews are my tribute to the life of one of the greatest rock stars who ever lived. Because this is meant to be something of a career history, I'm limiting this to contemporary releases only, so no "Bataclan '72" for example (widely circulated as a bootleg, but not officially released until 2004).

Rock 'N Roll Animal (1974)

For me, the deal breaker on this album happens about two minutes into "Heroin".  Reed calmly sings the opening lines of the song, backed by sparse and delicate guitar lines, a big change from the bombastic, kaleidescopic opener "Sweet Jane".  And just as you expect the song to pick up speed and build in primal rage ... it breaks into a sunkissed squeal of guitar solos and drum breaks straight out of 70's session band hell. The noise and chaos of the original was trampled on and replaced by the sound of speeding along the highway listening to FM radio.  Sometimes this approach works -- "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" were written with exactly this sort of radio-friendly sound in mind -- but "White Light/White Heat" and "Heroin" are completely stripped of the desperate energy and frantic noise that made the original versions so iconic.  I can understand why people enjoy hearing these songs so radically transformed, but it's not for me.

Supposedly this was a Saturday night party album for proto-punks in the 70's, and if so, it was the first ironic proto-punk album because I can't imagine those same people celebrating this style of rock and roll excess if the name on the marquee wasn't Lou Reed.  However, there is plenty to admire about the slick, professional facelifts given to "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" though, so all in all, the good tends to cancel the bad.  6/10.

Lou Reed Live (1975)

This was recorded at the same concert as "Rock 'N Roll Animal", but had more promise based on the tracklist.  With three songs from "Transformer" and two from "Berlin", the song choices appear better suited for the glammy, rock and roll glitter show put on by Reed's then-band. IOW, if you're hiring Steve Hunter to play in your band, let him work with "Sad Song" and "Oh Jim", but by god keep him away from "Heroin". Unfortunately there's a reason that this album always gets overlooked in favour of "Rock 'N Roll Animal", and it begins and ends with Reed's annoying habit of improvising and changing up his vocals.  It's the same habit that nearly ruined the Velvet Underground reunion live album, to name just one future live recording that he dragged down (we'll get there). "Sad Song" and "Satellite of Love" should be lullabies springing to life in technicolour, instead, they're both dragged down by Reed's half whiny, half shouty "singing".  "Walk On the Wild Side" is a nice surprise that tones down the jazz in favour of an extra dose of groove, and "Oh Jim" is appropriately epic and benefits from Reed barely having to sing on it.  And the less said about "I'm Waiting For the Man", the better.  In all, it retains many of the flaws of "Rock 'N Roll Animal" and adds a few more of its own, and without a truly great performance to recommend it, this album seems best suited for hardcore "Rock 'N Roll Animal fans only. 4/10.

Take No Prisoners (1978)

I was looking forward to finally hearing the album that Robert Christgau famously labeled a comedy album. What could Lou Reed possibly have to talk about for 90+ minutes?  Do people get bored with comedy/spoken word albums after they've listened a couple of times and already know all the punchlines?  Maybe, but I've heard this album twice and I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface.  What's below the surface might be nothing but the ramblings of a madman, but there's still a lot to take in.  Or, it might be a unfiltered glimpse into the mind of one of rock's most literary, yet combustible, masterminds.  Which side you choose probably depends on the mood that you, the listener, are in that day, and whether or not you're in the mood for a 98-minute journey through a Lou Reed live set where half the time he barely bothers to get around to singing the words to the song he's supposed to be singing.

So why is "Take No Prisoners" is a big step up from the "Rock 'N Roll Animal"-era albums?  First, he's traded in the Detroit Rock City house band, whose glammy image was never a solid fit for Reed, for a rawer, bluesier outfit complete with backing singers and electric sax. Bruce Springsteen, who was in the audience when this album was recorded, certainly would have approved of Reed's own version of the E-Street band.  Second, whereas "Rock 'N Roll Animal" was too-professional to the point of being soulless, emphasizing image over all else without a single hair out of place, "Take No Prisoners" is sweaty, brutal, and honest to the point of slapping you in the face with its realness.  I used to collect bootleg cassettes, and still do enjoy tracking down live concerts of varying sound quality, because I wanted to capture the feeling of really being there in ways that slickly produced soundboard recordings usually can't do.  That's what "Take No Prisoners" is -- a gig with a beginning, middle, and end.  There's a fast opening section (starting with a blazing "Sweet Jane"), a slow middle section (shambolic but moving versions of "Satellite of Love" and "Coney Island Baby", a bluesy "I"m Waiting For the Man" that morphs into "Temporary Thing" mid-rant and then back again), and a killer closer/encore of balls out rock and roll ("Leave Me Alone") to send the crowd home buzzing.  There's also room for a mesmerizing performance of "Street Hassle" (the street ramblings of the recorded version are completely appropriate for a pissed off Lou Reed live show) and a "performance" of "Walk on the Wild Side" that gets sidetracked completely into takedowns of newspaper critics, stories about the characters in the songs, and a million other things that have nothing to do with the song.  Like many double albums that try to be "epic", it excites you, bores you, demands that you pay attention, and threatens to try your patience all at the same time.  It's how you feel once you've survived all 1.5 hours of it that counts.  8/10.  

A Night With Lou Reed (1983)

Technically not a contemporary release or a live album (the first TV broadcast wasn't until years later) but I'm making an exception because I love it.  In a career full of about faces and contradictions, this one might have been his most drastic.  A narrator opens the video with a dramatic description of the streets of New York and pushing it as a triumphant home field comeback for Reed.  They call it a comeback even though the concert was recorded at The Bottom Line -- the same venue as "Take No Prisoners" -- but between Reed's polished appearance and boyish looks (even at 41), cleaned-up attitude, and tight leather jacket, there is definitely an air of "'68 Comeback Special" to all of this.  Everything about his live setup is tidied up and more orderly than before, in short, Lou Reed was ready to take on the 80's.  From glam rock waif to punk godfather/notorious loose cannon to supper club entertainer, all at four year intervals.

Reed looks and sounds good and appears motivated in performing an efficient, but powerful set of hits and new songs, but he's nearly upstaged by his sideman, the incomparable Robert Quine.  Looking the part of the cold blooded killer with his dark sunglasses, white collar protruding from his black jacket intense yet calm expression, he arguably steals the show with one caustic guitar solo after another and just generally looking badass with everything he does.  No wonder a volatile personality like Reed couldn't stand working with him for very long.  8/10.

Live In Italy (1984)

The same band and the same tour as "A Night With Lou Reed", and mostly the same setlist too.  So let's just show some respect to:
1) Quine's solo on "Waves of Fear".  When you only had thirty seconds to spare but needed someone to shred the fuck out of a guitar solo, Quine was the man.
2) The smooth bass and more great guitar solos on "Satellite of Love".
3) "Walk On the Wild Side" going ROCK instead of faux jazz, "Heroin" getting stripped of its inherent minimalism and becoming an actual SONG in the hands of this band.  8/10.

Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)

This was Reed's first live album in fourteen years, not including the Velvet Underground reunion live album.  Although Reed gained a reputation for being unpredictable and not caring about sales or trends, he was in tune with the winds of change and knew how  to market himself.  Chris Molanphy examined this more fully in his recent article about Reed's chart history.  In the late 80's he dabbled in synth-pop and made amusing videos and got exactly what he was aiming for -- his highest charting albums in a decade and increased MTV airplay.  Then, as the early 90's boxed set era started hitting his peak, Reed, along with Neil Young and Bob Dylan, were resurrected and reclaimed almost overnight from relics who'd been left behind in the 80's into respected elder statesmen of rock and roll.  By 1998, Reed had been inducted into the RnR Hall of Fame (with the Velvet Underground) and was firmly entrenched as a rock legend with the multiple boxed sets and reunion tours to prove it.  In keeping with his image as a musical godfather who could keep up with the times, he released a live album that was an MTV Unplugged album in all but its name.

This album appeared when I was getting deeply into the VU (and Reed's solo career to a lesser extent) but despite the impressive, career spanning set list, I didn't pick it up because of the middling reviews it received at the time.  Fifteen years later, I'm finally hearing it and I can understand why it's become a nearly forgotten entry in Reed's live catalogue.  No performances really stand out, at least not in a positive way (the Lou Reed of the 1990's should not have been attempting "I'll Be Your Mirror") and it's a bit embarrassing when the set builds to a funked out version of "The Original Wrapper" that could have been an ironic cover by RHCP or Cake. However, there is plenty of breadth on display here, with tracks from nearly all of his 1980's albums, plus selected hits from the 70's and just one VU song, and that alone makes it an intriguing document in Reed's career. 6/10.

Animal Serenade (2004)

Reed's final decade in music might have been his most unpredictable.  Maybe with rock music hitting its commercial low point on the pop charts, Reed felt he could ignore trends altogether and finally do absolutely anything he wanted without caring one whit about sales figures?  His work in this period tended towards dream projects that had been simmering for years but never realized.  Dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe set to music?  Staging "Berlin" in its entirety?  An album with Metallica?  Why not!

"Animal Serenade" is the unplugged album that "Perfect Night" could have been.  It's the difference between trading his electric guitar for an acoustic one and stripping back the songs completely and building then again from scratch with new instrumentation and radically altered arrangements.  "How Do You Think It Feels?" and "Set The Twilight Reeling" start as solemn and delicate and accelerate toward furious, noisy conclusions.  "Venus In Furs" heads in the opposite direction in terms of tempo, stretching out every stanza in a manner that mimics the painful agony expressed in the lyrics, culminating in an insane cello solo that threatens to rip your eardrums apart.  Reed's voice probably never sounded better on this side of age sixty, and when he for once he picks his spots wisely when he wants to project rough and gravely -- "Street Hassle" and "The Raven" practically demand to be shouted rather than sung.

With nearly every track sounding inspired, this was the real perfect night (in LA), and call me crazy, but this is by far the best album of the bunch so far.  But can we do something about the album cover?  What's with the tufts of hair growing out of the words "Lou Reed" and Reed looking like a leathery zombie emerging from the shadows?  9/10.

Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse (2008)

"Berlin" is probably my favourite Lou Reed solo album (either that or "Songs For Drella" with John Cale).  Certainly none of his other albums have affected me as strongly, even after fifteen years, I've still never heard an album that can devastate one's mood more decisively if it catches you on the right (or wrong) day.  Reed hated the "most depressing album ever" comments, but I always saw those descriptions as compliments.  The best music has the power to completely transform the mood of a person or even a whole room of people.  Bringing you up is in no way inherently superior or more artistically meaningful than taking you down.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I heard this album a few years ago and was horrified to hear Reed practically sleepwalking through it.  His spoken word rantings on "The Kids" completely kill the song, to name just one example of Reed singing against, rather than with the instrumentation.  

Then I saw the Julian Schnabel-directed DVD when preparing these reviews, and it got even worse.  Now I could see Reed not trying rather than trying to infer it from the audio.  The only time where he looks like he could give a fuck is at the end of "Candy Says" as he gazes at Antony Hegarty like an adoring father.  And of course "Candy Says" wasn't even on "Berlin", but is easily the highlight here (mainly because of Antony's singing).

The staging and video projections are great, as is every moment featuring the choir.  The ambition and talent was there, but the execution wasn't there for some reason.  3/10

Creation of the Universe (2008).

Reed's final act was more secretly fascinating than a lot of people gave him credit for at the time (including me).  It's almost as if he eschewed conventional rock entirely and switched over to the performance art/improv world, likely in part due to the influence of Laurie Anderson. And then he recorded LULU, but that's another story.  

The "Metal Machine Trio" doesn't sound anything like the track/album implied in its name, but it never claimed to be anything other than "music inspired by MMM".  Fans of that album and grinding, noisy improv music in general will find a lot to like here. Ullrich Krieger's sax is processed and filtered in a million different ways, blending into the sheets of electronic and F/X laden squall churned out by the rest of the trio.  I'd say the first disc comes together more tightly as a piece than the second, but that's really a matter of personal taste.  The trio played a number of gigs over the years, and I have a recording of one from 19/04/2010 that's very similar to the music on this disc.  This kind of music really demands to be heard in a live venue, as loud as possible.  It's the kind of industrial, scraping, volatile noise music that I enjoy seeing live but rarely listen to at home.  7/10.

Reed, Anderson, and John Zorn released a recording that I couldn't track down, although video clips of some of their shows together are widely available on the internet.    

LULU may have been panned, but the fallout as far as Reed's live shows are concerned may have been immense.  In his final shows he was playing some of the most aggressive rock music of his career, witness this seventeen (!!) minute version of "Heroin" from a festival in the summer of 2012, in all its punishing, unhinged glory.  It's an intriguing glimpse into what might have been yet another new direction for the always unpredictable Reed.    

Monday, November 11, 2013

Arcade Fire, "Reflektor"

I go back and forth on this album, or at least the concept of it.  My gut reaction to "The Suburbs" was enough with the teen angst, crank up the Blondie tributes, and that's pretty much the direction they've taken with "Reflektor".  They even "became" a new band called the Reflektors, complete with lily white 70's-style suits, and got a noted dance music producer to work with them on their album.  If any band was due for a change after three albums of the usual, it was Arcade Fire.  You could counter that by asking why they'd mess with a  formula that had brought them nothing but exponentially growing success, culminating in arguably the most surprising Album of the Year Grammy wins ever.  But like U2 in the 80's (a band and a style that Arcade Fire certainly have taken cues from) there's only so far you can push yourselves trying to be the world's most earnest and meaningful band before self-combusting under the weight of your own seriousness.  Most people didn't see it coming with U2 -- they seemed to be in it for the long haul with the polemics they established in the 80's -- but to their infinite credit, they realized they had to become something totally different to get people to keep taking them seriously.  A lot has been written about U2 embracing irony, slumming it in Berlin long before it was the in thing to do, and going OTT with the Mephisto dress up games, etc.  It's been ages since a band at this level had the opportunity to follow in U2's footsteps and make the same kind of 180-degree turn.

Anyway, that's the concept.  I don't go back and forth on the album itself.  It's not good.  Like Steven Hyden pointed out on Grantland, it feels fake, pantomime, and utterly contrived.  What could have been more contrived than early 90's U2, you say?  But "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways" were very much ahead of their time, there was nothing even remotely like it on the stadium rock scene.  Their image might have been carved out with diamond-like precision, but the shocking thing was that U2 managed to circumvent all their peers and fast forward themselves into the 90's so smoothly.  It was pantomime and contrived to the nth degree, but it was still U2, a drastically updated version of them but still instantly recognizable.  It was never fake, it never felt like they were trying to shed their skins completely.  The same can't be said for "Reflektor".  I have no longer have any sense of the band behind the record.

The lack of editing that nearly killed "The Suburbs" has made "Reflektor" quite the slog.  It's exhausting to listen to track after track of six-to-seven minute disco rock that never seem to hit any true valley or peak.  There are some bright spots, like the title track, but the stabs at reggae and funk couldn't possibly hit any further from their mark -- whatever the opposite of riddim and funky are, they found it.

I also have no idea how any of this will fit with their earlier material when they play live.  Besides the obvious inclusions of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" and "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)", I'm not sure how they'll manage to piece together a cogent live set, or how they can pull off the loose and laid back "Reflektor" material night after night when their live shows are famous for being anything but.