What is it about The Velvet Underground & Nico that continues to electrify, frighten, and swoon us 45 years later? From an objective perspective, The Velvet Underground’s schizophrenic moans and melodic drones were likely never intended for commercial success, an experiment more than a band touring as part of Andy Warhol’s performance art piece The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. For so many, The Velvet Underground & Nico correlates with a sonic revolution and that cosmos-shattering realization that sound has the possibility to thrive within writhing confessionals and virtually without boundaries. Nonetheless, the erotic uncertainty of what to think, feel, or even know after hearing The Velvet Underground & Nico for the very first time is nearly universal.
A foreign uncertainty looms around cover albums, as only opposite ends of a spectrum exist when classic albums are reimagined: the result is either horror or harmony. No in betweens. So with the banana album, color us yellow with skepticism. In honor of the album’s 45th birthday, crunching California collective Castle Face has rounded up the finest from its roster and revamped it entirely, with each artist taking on a different track.
The album hits the listener gradually at first, heightened by the slow opening burn of Kelley Stoltz’s take on “Sunday Morning”, which utilizes the very same tinny, lullaby-inducing piano as the original. While a pleasant hum, Stoltz’s subdued vocals almost lull by comparison, although the dissonance works to amplify the backing violins intensely. By contrast, Warm Soda’s cover “I’m Waiting For The Man” results in a, well, lukewarm, lo-fi indie pop intent at tackling the track.
Despite a slightly underwhelming beginning, the album harnesses both volume and prowess near the middle, beginning with Ty Segall’s screeching cover of “Femme Fatale”. Segall’s falsetto vocals sear with a peculiar appeal not very unlike Nico’s German drawl, although far more frenzied than the breath of calm the original sighs onto the album. Arguably one of the more challenging covers here, the sensational “Venus In Furs” cover by trash punks Blasted Canyons shrieks and stuns. Here, the album reaches its pinnacle, a sharp point where the instrumentation and vocals directly resurrect the sadomasochistic luster the Velvets were attracted to, with the splitting cries of “Severin” resembling cracking whips and clanking tambourines almost binding the ear with chains.
Foaming at the mouth, Tim Presley’s drawl follows up with a lovably fuzzy White Fence cover of “Run Run Run”. Appropriately heady, the thumping bass of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” unfortunately doesn’t wring out the reverb that smothers the vocals in The Fresh & Only’s disappointing cover of the spellbinding original. The alluring “Heroin” follows and surprises with a punchy solo that’s complemented by the shrieks of San Francisco’s nervy Burnt Ones. The album, like its inspiration, slows after “Heroin”, with The Mallards’ no-fuss version of “There She Goes Again” dipping into a swirling surf rock rendition of the original.
The final three tracks of the album appropriately spook, particularly with the contrast of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song” plucking at the duality of darkness vs. light. Here Comes The Here Comes’ version of Nico’s airy “I’ll Be Your Mirror” utilizes harmonizing female vocals to resemble a chilling children’s choir. Like a demonic priest’s false homily, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” haunts shortly after and fills you with a sort of reverent dread as K. Dylan Edrich’s vocals spit pure evil, the tension of whittling violins in the background alluding to the inevitability of numbered days. Thee Oh Sees’ “European Son” is 20 seconds of lyrics and seven minutes of masturbatory freakouts, equally as frantic as the apocalypse-inducing closer of the album.
If one group of noise-addled weirdos were intent to cover The Velvet Underground & Nico, we’re hardpressed to find a group of musicians that could pull it off as accurately as Castle Face. In both the context of the original album, as well as a fresh ear, the majority of the tracks reverberate with awe-inspired shreds of noise, reeling and raw. Peel back slowly, and see.
Essential Tracks: “Venus In Furs”, White Fence’s “Run Run Run”, and Burnt Ones’ “Heroin”