Music history buffs don’t agree on much, but the one thing that they’ll nod their heads in agreement is that The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the most influential albums on many, many levels. Produced by the ubiquitous Andy Warhol (at least that’s what it says on the album’s iconic cover), the album brought the literal underground, art rock/pre punk sound of New York City to the public and though it didn’t sell that well, it’s legacy is unquestioned.
Celebrating the 45th anniversary of its release, a bunch of brave cast of new musicians (including Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees amongst others) decided to take on the 11 songs that comprise the album, and as it goes with tribute records, the results varied from badass to bland. The versions that remain true to the original compositions will make traditionalists happy, while the more ambitious songs will appeal to fans of that particular band.
Kelley Stoltz’s take on “Sunday Morning” is similar to the original album opener, but what makes his version different is his vocals and the deliberate pace of the song. Instrumentally, the song sounds the same until you get the guitar solo, but the eeriness of his vocals are exactly what Lou Reed had in mind when he wrote the song. The pace is a bit slower than the original, which is fine since the tone is supposed to on the dark side. The same goes for Burnt One’s version of “Heroin.”
Contrarily, Warm Soda’s “I’m Waiting For The Man” and Segall’s “Femme Fatale” are delightfully original. Though originally taken aback since the sound is markedly different than the Velvet’s version, they both work when you give them a chance. It would be akin to wearing the wearing the same jacket for 10 years, then when you finally decide to buy the ‘new’ vintage model, it feels strange and different, yet you eventually come to like it almost as much as your original. Warm Soda blazes through their songs with the speed of a vintage garage band, while Segall takes on Nico and like the aforementioned analogy, manages to make it work in a way he only can. The vocal sounds as weird as you would expect, but drone-y guitars sound like something the band would have done either as an alternate take or if they had a chance to do it again. Needless to say, the notoriously fickle Reed would be pleased with both versions.
The standout track though is “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Fresh & Onlys. Again, it’s nearly impossible to replicate Nico’s haunting beauty, yet what’s lacking in the vocals in made up with the terrific keyboard/synths. The song has a distinct indie feel and sounds more along the lines of New Order instead of the Velvet Underground. But that’s the charm of a tribute album like such and is a testament to the staying power of the composition that a reinterpretation can sound as fresh and have as much life as it did 45 years ago.What makes tribute albums cool is that you can compare and contrast songs as you please. If you’re a fan of the original Velvet Underground album or are a fan of any of these 11 bands who aren’t familiar with the songs, this record is a win-win since you can get a fresh take on one of rock’s most important albums and can revisit it and perhaps learn why The Velvet Underground are a true American musical treasure.