LOU REED Ecstasy (Reprise)

"Ecstasy" is Lou Reed's latest studio album, cruelly ignored by me on its release in 2000. I can belatedly report that it's very good, possibly his most consistent and interesting release since "New York", with due deference for those who covet "Magic And Loss" (I've tried and failed with that album, too barren and dour for me, even by Lou Reed's standards) or "Songs For Drella" (more impressive in concept than execution, unfortunately). This has everything you could ask for from a latter-day Lou Reed album: a pungent, crackling guitar sound, witty, incisive lyrics, a parade of perverse characters and melodies good enough for him to almost sing, rather than just mumble along too. There's also some neat brass scoring, and reckless abandon in the form of the droning, 18 minute "Like A Possum" (possibly a reference to Mo Tucker, who released a solo album called "Playing Possum"). It's hard to pick standouts, though, as the entire album exudes quality, driven along by a whip-smart band who fully understand the idea that less is almost always more. If you too have been disappointed the man's work in recent years, "Ecstasy" genuinely deserves closer examination.

LOU REED, JOHN CALE & NICO Le Bataclan ’72 (Part 1) (Get Back)

The title’s Part 1 parenthesis denotes that fact that, although originally issued as a double album, Get Back have, in their infinite wisdom, decided to reissue “Le Bataclan ‘72” as two separately priced and packaged picture discs. This decision is not immediately apparent from Amazon’s skeletal item description unless you have an unusual interest in catalogue numbers. So this is now part one of a two part set, and bereft of any Nico involvement that I can detect.

Nevertheless, the prospect is almost as enticing as the cover sticker’s slightly bruised English paints it. Reed and Cale hadn’t appeared together on stage or on record since the latter played his last gig with The Velvet Underground over three years previously. Lou is on typically disparaging form, needling his Welsh cohort about the time taken to prepare his armoury of stringed instruments between songs whenever an opportunity arises.

An opening “Waiting For The Man” is soporific but terrific: even more of a dead-eyed trance than the Velvets’ original, nobody seems to notice when Lou sleepwalks through the “Here he comes, he’s all dressed in black” verse twice in succession. “Berlin” is introduced as “My Barbra Streisand song”, which always prompts me to reflect what kind of album La Streisand could create by gathering up all the songs counterculture heroes have penned for her more in hope than expectation.  (Admittedly, the only two candidates I’m aware of are this and Mark Eitzel’s “Saved”, but there must surely be others.) The rendition here is pitched midway between the “Lou Reed” version and the “Berlin” take, with the unswerving melodic determination of the former and the plodding, fatalistic piano of the latter. A slowed down “Black Angel’s Death Song” is closer to a gypsy dervish than the speedfreak original, allowing the listener opportunity to reflect that although the sound quality of “Le Bataclan ‘72” isn’t great, it’s certainly no worse than the officially sanctioned live releases from their early years.

Reed sounds bored by “Wild Child” even as he introduces it as a new song. Although he stumbles with the bubblegum Bolan lyrics on occasion he seems to warm to it as it progresses. “Heroin”’s clattering attack is slightly softened without Mo Tucker’s pummelling percussion, describing a series of carefully modulated peaks and troughs rather than crashing crescendos. Finally, Cale’s sole solo contribution, “Ghost Story”, plays like an early sketch of “Paris 1919”’s gothic baroque.

“Le Bataclan ’72 (Part 1)” is a compelling, unplugged portrait of two of the most influential musicians of their generation suppressing their animosity towards each other just long enough to bathe in some of the glory that eluded them first time around. I look forward to hearing the rest of it.

LOU REED, JOHN CALE & NICO Le Bataclan ’72 (Part 2) (Get Back)

…which, following some rather more careful consideration of the finer details of Amazon’s product listings, I now have. Cale’s singalong, throwaway “The Biggest, Loudest, Hairiest Group Of All” opens proceedings, suggesting the A&R man in him wasn’t particularly comfortable with the first wave of British heavy metal then warming the globe. It’s followed by the equally unfamiliar “Empty Bottles”, a song that otherwise exists only within the slightly unexpected confines of a Jennifer Warnes album. Nevertheless, it’s of a piece with the kind of forlorn baroque folk of his solo debut, “Vintage Violence”.

Nico’s turn begins with a version of “Femme Fatale” that remains spookily faithful to the studio original, even down to Reed and Cale’s pancake flat backing vocals. Proceedings become distinctly chillier from “No One Is There” onwards, her harmonium seemingly wheezing a layer of frost over the stage. But then again, titles such as “Janitor Of Lunacy” and “Frozen Warnings” are hardly misleading: this is neither party, nor disco, nor fooling around. Proceedings close on an encore of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” that’s so folk pure it could have come from the first Joan Baez album, although it’s accompanied by some mysterious low frequency grumbling that suggests a troll was slumbering beneath the stage.

Whether you prefer this disc to the opening section reviewed above will depend on where your allegiances lie. Since Cale is pretty much evenly represented on each volume, the choice is really between whether you’d rather listen to Lou mumbling through his back catalogue or be lashed by Nico’s portents of doom. The sensible option, of course, would be to submit to both.

LOU REED Coney Island Baby (RCA/Legacy)

“Lou Reed’s landmark album!” screams the sticker, which probably has more to do with the was the artist was less waving that drowning at the time “Coney Island Baby” was recorded. He was being sued by a manager, had just dropped an album (“Metal Machine Music”) that his own introductory notes here describe euphemistically as having “an unusually high number of returns”, had no money, no guitars and was living in a hotel at his record company’s expense. Seemingly in hock to the whole world, when RCA’s president suggested Reed go make a rock record for one of very few times in his career Reed was meekly compliant.

Although taken on their own terms there’s nothing revelatory about the short pop songs that open the album (“Crazy Feeling” and “Charley’s Girl”), as a follow-up to the sheets of noise that constituted his previous album they represent one of the most abrupt about turns in rock; if anything, they sound tame and toothless, as though Reed’s overcompensating in search of that elusive hit. “She’s My Best Friend” is resurrected from his Velvets days; over twice the length of the VU’s then unreleased version, this unfocussed amble through the song seems more like an attempt to fill out the album’s short sides than any kind of artistic statement. At least “Kicks” offers some sonic innovation: with its constant background burble of party chatter and sporadic, jarring electroshocks it sounds like a sassy 70s update of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album, equal parts “Some Kinda Love” and “The Murder Mystery”. “A Gift”, with its repeated assertion of Reed’s value to womankind, is difficult to take seriously, and on “Ooohhh Baby” his vocals model a curious bullfrog lunge. “Nobody’s Business” rips its opening cymbal shimmer wholesale off “Ocean”.

After half an hour of this near-continuous underwhelming, plastic imitation of the Lou Reed of “Transformer” and “Berlin” you’d be forgiven for wondering where the charm of “Coney Island Baby” lay. It’s the seven minute title track that pulls the rug from under your gathering complacency, Lou mumbling about “when I was a young man in high school…I wanted to play football for the coach”. After nearly a decade of decadence, debasement and casual perversion, hearing Lou Reed emote about how “the glory of love might see you through” is somehow more shocking than a setlist packed with the likes of “Venus In Furs” or “Heroin”. By rights it should sound like a con trick, a scam, but instead it’s lovely, almost impossibly humane. Up against practically everything, this is how he responds, and it’s remarkable.

The inevitable bustle of extra tracks rounds out this reissue. B-side “Nowhere At All” is fuzzy and incoherent, kind of like “White Light/White Heat” without any of its blinding brilliance; “Downtown Dirt” is a languid slither through familiar gutters. There’s also a trio of alternate takes featuring former VU sparring partner Doug Yule, none of which better the released versions. Following the aforementioned, “Crazy Feeling” has a chiming charm reminiscent of “Who Loves The Sun”, spoiled a little by the way Reed seems to be singing through a mouthful of marshmallows. There’s yet another completely different version of “She’s My Best Friend”, its bombastic rock guitar moves undermined by Reed’s brutalising vocals. Finally, an earlier version of the title track kinda plods, Reed failing to drill down to the rich seam of humility and humanity tapped for the released take. Here it sounds like a put-on, which, for a song whose impact depends on the sincerity of the singer, is cripplingly deflating.

Velvet Undergound