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Review: The Velvet Underground tribute album 'I'll Be Your Mirror'

@TylerGolsen
Various Artists - 'I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico'
6.8

The new Velvet Underground tribute LP I’ll Be Your Mirror, featuring reimaginings of every song from the band’s debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, has dropped.

The collection is mostly a fascinating look into how hordes of different artists interpret some of the most legendary songs of all time. The novelty of a Velvet Underground covers album wears off pretty quickly, especially considering The Velvet Underground and Nico is no longer the marginalised cult favourite it originally was. What really keeps your attention throughout the collection is hearing what each musician decides to keep, strip away, or add to the original alternative rock LP.

Michael Stipe steps up first with ‘Sunday Morning’, and instead of the celeste that kicks off the original album, Stipe employs a clarinet to truly enhance the setting of bleary early dawn. Despite having permanently put the kibosh on R.E.M. a decade ago, Stipe’s voice is still in stellar form. All unique creaks and braying beauty, Stipe folds in electronic sequencers, orchestral woodwinds, and background choruses without ever pushing too far into novelty.

One of the delights of the original LP is being led into a false sense of security by ‘Sunday Morning’ before being slapped in the face by the heroin-referencing barrelhouse rock and roll of ‘I’m Waiting For the Man’. Matt Berninger lets that opportunity slip away by stripping down the song into a mediocre arrangement that The National would probably only put on a B-side. ‘I’m Waiting For the Man’ requires a certain amount of excitement in order to work, and Berninger just sounds sleepy, like ‘Sunday Morning’ is still going on in his head.

Three of indie rock’s greatest singers have been drafted to play the role of the ethereal and detached German songstress Nico on I’ll Be Your Mirror, and the first one to step up to the plate is Sharon Van Etten. Van Etten gives a slowed down and sultry version of ‘Femme Fatale’ that is string-heavy and titanic in its drama. The only thing that would make this version better is if she and Angel Olsen had turned it into a duet (they’ve spoiled us with that collaboration, and they really need to make a full album together ASAP).

Out of the smokey fog of ‘Femme Fatale’ comes a pizzicato-plucked orchestra that sounds like it was lifted directly from a Danny Elfman score. It’s only when Andrew Bird starts singing the familiar opening lines that it becomes clear we’ve entered the basement lair of ‘Venus In Furs’. The vocal duo Lucius trade lines with Bird, and all the aggressively ear-splitting viola lines produced by John Cale in the original are sanded down to highly melodic runs. They make ‘Venus In Furs’ sounds pretty, but ‘Venus In Furs’ shouldn’t really sound pretty.

Kurt Vile seems like one of the only artists here who decided not to fuck with formula too much. He knows the power of the song he’s given – ‘Run Run Run’ is pure driving rock and roll, and so he dutifully puts on his best Lou Reed sunglasses and has a hell of a time just jamming on the track. Vile stretches out the track with some spacey guitar improv, but those rollicking drums never let up for even a second. Nobody on I’ll Be Your Mirror sounds like they’re above the songs they’re performing, per se, but Vile is one of the few who don’t try to do too much with the assignment, and he subsequently aces it.

St. Vincent then steps up as your next Nico. Vincent mixes spooky spoken word with some experimental jazz piano to transform ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ into something completely alien and otherworldly. For the entire first half of the song, melody and form are pushed aside, but when the synth pads and Peanuts-esque piano lines drop in, the bizarre beauty that surrounds St. Vincent’s music reveals itself. Her take on ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ will probably be the most divisive of all the covers featured, but credit where credit is due — she doesn’t half-ass her rearrangement.

There’s something so perfect about employing Bobby Gillespie to imitate Lou Reed while Thurston Moore pays tribute to Sterling Morrison on ‘Heroin’. Gillespie’s drumming in The Jesus and Mary Chain was explicitly Maureen Tucker inspired, so he’s coming full circle on this track. For his part, Moore took the schitzy guitar lines of the Velvet Underground and make a whole career out of it, so this feels like justice for him as well. The two bring some appropriate unnerving intensity to The Velvet Underground and Nico‘s most challenging pop song.

King Princess files into the Kurt Vile camp by simply having a super fun time covering ‘There She Goes Again’ without any major changes to the arrangement or style of the original. When she laughs after the song’s first chorus, it feels like a genuine release from someone who’s just giddy to be giving her take on a classic rock and roll tune. When the song kicks into its double-time coda, King Princess knows the original’s impromptu rap so well that she recites it pretty much verbatim, in all its silly infectious glory.

Your final Nico of the night is Courtney Barnett, the versatile singer-songwriter who is equally adept in fuzzy indie rock and gentle folk. Barnett goes down the latter route for ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, the album’s title track. There’s nothing to hide behind here, just Barnett, her acoustic guitar, and some background percussion. Not even the original’s waterfall of backing harmonies are replicated. Most artists consciously refined or added to their arrangements on the album, but Barnett finds the beauty in simplicity with her cover.

Deconstructionist experts Fontaines D.C. get an assignment right up their alley: ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’. If I had money to bet, I would put it all on the notion that ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ directly birthed the members of D.C. Fontaines, fully formed, and all it took was a brief look at post-punk bands like Mission of Burma for the band to truly get started. Their take on the song is reverent to a fault, but it’s not exactly the most interesting or notable cover featured on the record. Still, solid effort guys.

To close it out, we get a real legend (not that Michael Stipe isn’t, but I’m sure he’d acquiesce to Iggy Pop any day). Pop employs his former touring bassist, Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney, to create a distortion filled finale on ‘European Son’. To hear Pop squeal with delight as he bellows lines like “You made your wallpapers green/You want to make love to the scene” is just glorious, a fitting ending for a fairly enjoyable, if not questionably necessary, tribute album.

Not everyone properly rises to the occasion on I’ll Be Your Mirror, and it doesn’t seem as though the album was made for any reason other than “Hey, how cool would it be to hear these guys do Velvet Underground covers?” But I don’t need any real reason to enjoy most of the songs on here, and I’ll gladly revisit Stipe’s ‘Sunday Morning’, Vile’s ‘Run Run Run’, or Pop’s anarchic ‘European Son’ any day of the week. There’s nothing terribly transcendent on I’ll Be Your Mirror, but it makes for a fun listen regardless.

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