It’s easy to take the Velvet Underground for granted. Nearly four decades have passed since Brian Eno guesstimated that “Everyone who bought one of those [first] 30,000 copies [of the Velvets’ debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico] started a band,” and that maxim has been repeated so many times since that it has become cliché.
Artists have long pilfered the Velvets’ piercing art-house jams, heroin chic, and Notes From the Underground missives disguised as lyrics — largely without credit. But even without recognition, their influence resounds in the outsider-turned-pied-piper ethos of David Bowie, the abject caterwauls of the Stooges, the blue-jeans-and-sunglasses couture of the Ramones, the quietly poetic vulnerability of R.E.M., the monolithic guitar assaults of Metallica, the atonal noise experiments of Sonic Youth, the unapologetic New Yorkiness of the Strokes, and on and on and on. Since The Velvet Underground & Nico‘s release, the group’s disciples have brought the mainstream closer to them.
Now, more than 50 years after frontman Lou Reed’s frustration with the band’s lack of success forced him to quit the group, the Velvet Underground are in the midst of yet another round of evaluation and celebration. A few years back, they were the focus of a New York museum exhibition, and this year, they’re the subject of a comprehensive documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Carol). Additionally, 11 artists, have reinterpreted every song on The Velvet Underground & Nico — the groundbreaking 1967 LP that launched 30,000 groups — for the new tribute comp, I’ll Be Your Mirror.
The record is not the first Velvet Underground tribute; the early Nineties comp Heaven & Hell featured Nirvana, Ride, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others, while Fifteen Minutes added great renditions of songs by Swervedriver and Screaming Trees to the mix. But what sets I’ll Be Your Mirror apart from its predecessors is the way it shows the influence of the Banana Album, specifically, across several generations.
Masterminded by the late producer Hal Willner — who created tribute comps with surprising guest lists (including homages to Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, and, uh, pirate chanteys) and worked closely with Lou Reed — I’ll Be Your Mirror places tracks by Iggy Pop and Michael Stipe alongside renditions by Courtney Barnett and Sharon Van Etten. The best iterations here show off the depth of texture that the Velvet Underground could conjure inside and outside of rock & roll’s confines and how, even in the most radical reworkings, Reed and his bandmates hid some great pop songs underneath their trippier “many colors made of tears” moments. Although none of the tracks sound as daring as the originals (try as St. Vincent might), the Velvets’ pioneering spirit remains intact.
It’s fitting that the album opens with Stipe’s relaxed read of “Sunday Morning,” since he and R.E.M. were instrumental in reviving the Velvets’ appeal for the alt-rock generation through a series of early Eighties B-side covers. Where the Velvets’ original got its druggy cool from John Cale’s celesta arpeggios and Sterling Morrison’s undulating bass, Stipe sings serenely over long, sustained notes, shimmering synths, and Willner’s strings. His voice sounds calm and reedy (pun intended), echoed by his younger sister Lynda on backup vocals, and when he sings, “I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know,” he musters the same self-assuredness as Reed’s original vocals.
Similarly, Van Etten’s stunning take on “Femme Fatale” works so well because of the way she stretches her voice into a sleepy, sensuous drawl and the way her guest, Angel Olsen, sounds just as languorous when she harmonizes with Van Etten. The effect works perfectly with the slow-churning drone grinding away underneath a baroque string arrangement. Andrew Bird, joined by the women of Lucius, radically remakes “Venus in Furs” as an old-timey jazz song with Andrews Sisters backups. Even though he plays violin (and not Cale’s orchestral instrument of choice, viola), his serpentine solos and foreboding arrangement feel like the most Velvets-like track in spirit. And King Princess deserves recognition for giving a face-lift to one of the album’s least revolutionary songs, “There She Goes Again.” Instead of repeating Reed’s casual misogyny on the track (one regrettable line goes “you better hit her”), she simply laughs, and when the lyric comes around again, she sings, “but don’t hit her.” Her vocals sound gutsy and confident, making the tune into an unlikely standout. (It’s also worth noting that Willner emphasized the Velvets’ influence on women with the artists he picked for this compilation, especially since the band was the rare Sixties rock group with not one but two females, Moe Tucker and Nico, among its ranks.)
The rest of the artists reinterpret their chosen songs in their signature styles, sometimes highlighting previously unheard aspects of the tracks, sometimes tearing them apart. Reed’s heroin obsession steps into the spotlight on Matt Berninger’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as the National frontman carefully enunciates lyrics like “He’s got the works, gives you a sweet taste,” which Reed rendered in a speedy patter. Meanwhile, Kurt Vile sounds his Kurt Vile-est on “Run Run Run,” with a little more blues swagger than usual; Thurston Moore and Bobby Gillespie’s “Heroin” sounds just like Sonic Youth and Primal Scream shooting up (a good thing, considering Moore is the Velvetiest guitarist on the comp); and Irish post-punks Fontaines D.C. conjure just the perfect amount of noise for “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” as frontman Grian Chatten recites the lyrics in his brogue as his bandmates conjure feedback behind him.
The less successful experiments here are by artists who tried too hard to make the songs their own. St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett offer up a daring rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” on which she recites the lyrics as spoken-word poetry in both her own voice and “O Superman” robot voice, over jazz and Eno-esque soundscapes. It echoes the Velvets’ edginess but also their most grating endurance tests; it’s one of those tracks that’s fun to listen to only once. And Barnett’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” which she performs as a folk song on her acoustic guitar, never quite gets off the ground. That’s because, though she made the song her own, she stripped it of Nico’s memorable chorus, opting for a Lou Reed/Bob Dylan speak-sing approach to the track.
But all is saved on the comp’s kiss-off, a riotous punk rave-up on “European Son” by rock gadabout Matt Sweeney and Iggy Pop. The Iguana is the only true Velvets peer on the album, and he knows he has to live up to expectations here, so he screams, spits, and squalls with the same animosity as Sweeney’s guitar feedback. At one point it sounds like Pop is vomiting, which is the right reaction to the demented merry-go-round bass line Cale wrote so long ago. By the time the tune ends — abruptly, of course — it’s like the carnival ride that stopped cold, giving you the same feelings as the first time you heard The Velvet Underground & Nico: dizzy, excited, curious, hungry for more. I’ll Be Your Mirror reaffirms the weight of the Velvets’ importance, which countless artists reflect every day, whether they acknowledge it or not.