Graphics by Ainsley Basic
By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
Artist: Various artists covering The Velvet Underground and Nico
Album: I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico
Favorite Songs: “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Run Run Run,” “There She Goes Again,” and “Heroin”
For Fans Of: The Velvet Underground, Nico, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, King Princess
THE MAKING OF THE WELL-DESERVED TRIBUTE
A tribute album for The Velvet Underground & Nico was long overdue, and Verve Records – the Velvet Underground’s original label – has delivered.
When the Velvet Underground first made their debut with the twelve-track record in 1967, its commercial success was poor, only selling 30,000 copies in its first 5 years. But while it may not have met mainstream standards for music at the time, it possessed an inspiring level of creativity.
Brian Eno famously exclaimed “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” and though definitely exaggerated, he had a point. The Velvet Underground & Nico, or “the banana album” as some fans nicknamed it after its iconic Andy Warhol cover art, paved the way for many sublets of rock to emerge, and ultimately went on to earn the wide-acclaim and recognition it deserved.
In clips promoting the tribute album, artists involved echo a similar sentiment of being moved by hearing the album and channeling it into their own creative efforts. Listening through I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, you can feel that the artists take this spirit of awe and inspiration into the 12 covers. And Lou Reed’s longtime friend and producer Hal Willner made sure of it.
The tribute was the last album Willner worked on, as he tragically passed away last April of Covid-19 complications. A press release writes that Willner “viewed himself as a primary curator of Reed’s legacy.” Adding, “the care and love he felt for his friend’s work is evident in every note on I’ll Be Your Mirror.” From its explorative nature to its eclectic balance of old and new, the tribute takes shape into something beautifully genuine.
THE AVANT-GARDE QUALITIES OF THE ORIGINAL ALBUM ARE EXPLORED IN NEW WAYS
A big reason why the original record was not received very well was because of its avant-garde musical style and subject matter. This quality is something that is kept alive in the tribute album, this time in even more modern and distinctive ways.
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” by St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett can best be described as an audio experience. From the whispers that seem to only go into one ear to robotic vocal overlays, the two took an explorative approach to the cover. The piano-based result is a clear contrast to the original, but interesting all the same.
“Heroin,” covered by Thurston Moore, of the Sonic Youth, and Bobby Gillepsie, of Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain, starts with soft, pretty instrumentation before suddenly growing livelier and more abstract. The pace changes frequently and dramatically throughout the seven-minute song. As they sing the ominous lyrics with whispery, drawn-out vocals, shrilly guitars fill the background, fading away to the close.
Iggy Pop and Matt Sweeney’s version of “European Son” also has an avant-garde flare. The impossibly fast bass line gives the song its high energy start. It’s also the only thing that stays continuously through the mostly instrumental track. At the song’s end, either Pop or Sweeney let out a passionate, staticy wail alongside the increasingly erratic instrumentation.
The explorative nature of songs like these exemplifies the spirit of musical creativity that The Velvet Underground & Nico sparked with its original release.
AN ECLECTIC COLLECTION OF ARTISTS BOTH HONORING THE ORIGINAL AND PUTTING THEIR OWN SPIN ON THEIR COVERS
Something that I love about the tribute album is how different every track sounds. This is certainly the case in many collaborative projects, but this collection specifically shows a level of thoughtful intent as artists tread between the lines of honoring the original and putting their own spin on their respective covers.
The title track, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” taken on by Courtney Barnett, sees the original song transform into a beautifully stripped-back acoustic track. Barnett’s distinctive, earnest vocal delivery brings a refreshing sense of sincerity to the reassuring lyrics. And the complex hammer-chord-filled acoustic guitar brings a new sound, although it is grounded in familiar riffs.
Similarly, Sharon Van Etten makes “Femme Fatale” her own, offering a slow and haunting version compared to Nico’s original vocals. Later on, Kurt Vile adds a dancey moment to the album with his electrifying cover of “Run Run Run.” From showing off his guitar skills to letting out a yell and carrying the song strong, through to the end, it is easy to gather that Vile had fun contributing his cover.
While many primarily brought their styles to the original, King Princess seems to have taken a different approach. With “There She Goes Again,” she pushes the limits of her own usual style to match the old-timey and fast-paced sound of the original.
It is this eclectic quality of the tribute album that makes it such a piece of art. The musicians involved approached their covers in different ways, but all came forth with a bursting level of passion and sincerity. Ultimately, I can’t imagine a better way for the Velvet Underground and Nico’s album to be honored.