Music review: Time hasn't tamed Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat'

December 28, 2013 

Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”

  • Rock

    The Velvet Underground

    White Light/White Heat: 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

Perhaps “White Light/White Heat” can’t be the surprise it was when it arrived in 1968.

The second album by the Velvet Underground has been canonized, analyzed, annotated, emulated and contextualized as a cornerstone of punk and experimental rock. Generations of listeners have been aware of the insistent, relentless drone of its extended songs, the outbursts of scrabbling dissonance and earsplitting distortion from Lou Reed’s lead guitar, the equally insistent presence of John Cale’s electric viola and keyboards, the deadpan tales of drugs and sex and death in Reed’s lyrics and the pithy drive, amid the cacophony, of Sterling Morrison’s rhythm guitar and Maureen Tucker’s steadfast drums.

Yet even as a known quantity, the album is still incendiary. Its 45th-anniversary reissue was in the works before Reed’s death Oct. 27, although it makes a worthy memorial.

The original album is presented in stereo and mono versions with a handful of other studio tracks, most of which have already been released. A third disc presents a tape from a 1967 show at a Manhattan club, recorded a month after the band released its first album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico”; most of it has not appeared before.

Time and respect have not tamed the original “White Light/White Heat.” It holds the joyful amphetamine jitters of the title song, the deadpan gallows humor of the flinty jam and short-story reading of “The Gift,” the seething viola drone of “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” the delicacy and foreboding and anticipation of “Here She Comes Now” and the frenetic, feedback-screeching, mind-splitting guitar finale of “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

Then there’s the 17-minute “Sister Ray,” a flippant chronicle of heroin, debauchery and casual murder amid a hypnotic meltdown of a jam that overloads amplifiers as it mutates from soul vamp to brawl to meditation to breakneck sprint.

Jon Pareles, New York Times

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