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Critic's Pick: The Velvet Underground: 'The Velvet Underground — 45th Anniversary Edition'

Critic's Pick

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground — 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

"If you can't be a communist and make money," offers a 27-year-old Lou Reed in the midst of the wonderful new reissue of the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album, "then you have to be a rock 'n' roll singer — at least in Hoboken."

With that, The Velvet Underground — 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (available in two- and six-disc versions; the double-disc set is reviewed here) revisits the seminal New York band in yet another season of change. Recorded during the closing weeks of 1968 and released the following spring, the record is a step away from the sonic assault of 1967's White Light/White Heat. It's also the first VU recording cut after the exit of guitarist/violist John Cale. With Cale gone, the Velvets effectively became Reed's band. A few of the vocal duties are shared, but Reed penned all 10 melodically engaging but thematically restless tracks and was at the helm of the album's lighter, more rhythmic sound.

Of the four remarkable albums released before Reed's departure for a solo career in 1970, The Velvet Underground is often the most overlooked. Several songs here rank among Reed's finest work. Pale Blue Eyes, a remarkably subtle saga of a love tryst with a surprise ending, leads the list with a melodic charm as devious as its story line. Then there is After Hours, a closing tune sung with blunt but quiet vulnerability by drummer Maureen Tucker that wears its insecurity like an open wound against a disarming dance hall melody. But the stunner is Jesus, an open-faced plea for faith that today approximates a traditional spiritual.

Of course, the real treat behind these deluxe editions of the VU catalogue have been the accompanying bonus discs, which often unearth some long-lost archival delicacy. The one discovered for The Velvet Underground is quite the treasure: a 70-minute set of concert recordings taken from a pair of late-November 1969 concerts at The Matrix in New York.

Some of this material was issued, along with recordings from an October show that year, on a 1974 live set titled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Here the October recordings have been jettisoned and the number of November performances have been doubled and remastered into what is perhaps the best-sounding VU live album yet. Among the unreleased nuggets: a slow, woozy take of Sweet Jane (which would surface in 1970 on Reed's final Velvets album, Loaded), a cantankerous saga about "the sorrows of the contemporary world" called I Can't Stand It Anymore (which would be retooled for Reed's 1971 solo debut record) and a percussive, menacing update of Heroin (from the first VU album, 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico).

Filling a gap in the history of a legendary band, the reconstituted The Velvet Underground does the legacy of the actual Velvet Underground proud and then some.

Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic

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