Friday, April 09, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: The Animal Growls Again

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, April 9, 2004

The very title of Lou Reed’s new double-disc live album Animal Serenade invites comparison to his first live album from the mid 70s. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

Ultimately the comparison doesn’t bode well for the new record. Serenade doesn’t come close to the timeless power and glory that is Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, which is one of the greatest live albums of the ages.Furthermore you have to wonder why Reed felt compelled to release another live album. It wasn’t that long ago that he came out with Perfect Night, which was a decent representation of his live sound.

But don’t dismiss Animal Serenade.

This animal might not roar like 1974, but the old beast has a pretty fearsome growl.

Recorded last June in Los Angeles, Serenade features two longtime Reed sidekicks Fernando Saunders on bass and percussion and guitarist Mike Rathke, as well as Jane Scarpantoni, (who has played cello from everyone from Sheryl Crow to The Beastie Boys) and the mysterious Antony, whose Bizarro World falsetto gave strange colors to Reed’s previous CD The Raven.

Reed himself draws attention to the gulf between then and now by starting out the new one with the familiar power chords of “Sweet Jane,” the tune that kicked off Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. But here he stops and gets professorial, explaining how most people think there are only three chords in the riff, while actually, there are four. Instead of the long overworked “Sweet Jane,” he launches into “Smalltown,” an under-appreciated growing-up-weird-in-America song from the Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella.

One of the strangest aspects of Serenade is that there’s no drummer. True, Saunders plays some kind of synths drums on a couple of tracks. But for the most part, this record concentrates on Reed’s more ethereal and melodic songs. But the song selection here is one of the strengths of the album.

There’s a good smattering of Velvet Underground crowd-pleasers — a 10-minute “Heroin,” (far from his best version. It would have been more interesting had it turned into “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” as Reed hints deep into the song); a nine-minute “Venus in Furs,” (in which Scarpantoni out-Cales John Cale with her psychedelic cello solo); “Candy Says” (with Antony on lead vocals); and a surprisingly rocked-out “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

And there’s some more obscure Reed tunes that shine here — “Tell it to Your Heart,” (one of Reed’s best straightforward love songs of ‘80s); “How Do You Think It Feels” (done here with hints of gutbucket funk and one of the best guitar solos on the album); “Set the Twilight Reeling,” (starts off slow and soulful, has a warbling Antony interlude and ends in guitar fury); and “Call on Me” (a heartbreaker from The Raven.)

But what really makes this album is a four-song, 23-minute run on the first disc.

Starting with a bosa-nova-like “Ecstacy” (title song of one of Reed’s more forgettable ‘90s records) that grows in intensity until you think you might be approaching an ecstatic state, Reed goes into a forgotten political meditation from 1982’s The Blue Mask, “The Day John Kennedy Died.”From there he launches into a gripping version of “Street Hassle” (some points off for the unnecessary and seemingly self-congratulatory spoken introduction), which leads to “The Bed,” the grim climax of Berlin, Reed’s disturbing hymn to decadence and depravity. Reed sings of this suicide scene as if he’s about to burst into tears.

When you hear these latter-day takes on Reed’s great tales from the underbelly, you realize how shallow it is to consider rock ‘n’ roll the exclusive property of youth. These songs sounded ravaged and haggard when we first heard them all those years ago. You could argue that now that he’s over 60, Reed is growing into these tunes.

Also Recommended:

*The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall by Bob Dylan
Yes kiddies, 1964. That’s 40 years ago. Young Bob was just a pup.This two-disc set captures Dylan only months before he became a household word.

At this point he was still playing acoustic guitar only and thus he was still the darling of the folkies. You can hear them applaud enthusiastically when he plays his old protest favorites “With God on Our Side,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” etc. — and react far more politely to his newer, stranger batch of tunes like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

But by the next year the Folk Nazis would turn on him when he “went electric” and “sold out” to a wider audience — even wildly unhip people like a certain Okie junior high kid who grew up to be me.

Listen to this concert and you can almost see Dylan’s creativity pounding on the walls of his folkie prison, filing the bars of his cell, trying to bust out. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” one of the first rockers Dylan ever recorded, is done acoustically here. But you can hear it crying for electricity and drums.

The folkies should have seen the great heresy ahead when Dylan introduced “Who Killed Davey Moore,” a protest song about a boxer who was killed in the ring — and the pressures that put him in the ring — the promoter, the manager, the press, the audience.

“This is a song about a boxer. It’s got nothing to do with boxing, it’s just a song about a boxer. And, uh, it hasn’t got anything to do with a boxer really … It’s got nothing to do about nothing ... ”

Little did they know it had everything to do with everything.

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