Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fire Music: Celebrating Lou Reed's The Raven

Few albums of the modern rock-era have been as unfairly ignored and maligned as Lou Reed's wildly ambitious and brutally beautiful double-CD set The Raven. Damaged by a more commonly available, and inferior, single-disc version most fans and critics completely missed what was in reality a compelling career summation by Reed, who brought all of his major influences (both Literary and Musical) to the table for The Raven. With the release of Lou's new book, called not coincidentally The Raven, now seemed a good time to celebrate one of the great albums from America's premiere songwriter and musical innovator.

The Raven began its cantankerous existence when Lou Reed teamed up with legendary playwright and theater director Robert Wilson in 2000 for a collaboration called Poe-Try, a stage production based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Lou created a startling number of songs for Poe-Try and even went so far as to adapt some of Poe's most famous works and interweave them with his own new songs. Poe-Try was classic Reed and Wilson, it was controversial, defiant and unquestionably brilliant.

Instead of releasing a basic soundtrack for Poe-Try, Lou decided to create an album version of the work. Released in 2003, and featuring several of Lou Reeds greatest collaborators and influences including David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Ornette Coleman, The Raven is a bold sonic adventure fusing together spoken-word, punk, free-jazz and classic three-chord rock...in other words it is a classic Lou Reed record that defies easy categorization.

When thinking on The Raven I tend to dismiss the single-disc version that is the more commonly available. The Raven is too massive for just one-disc to hold and that single disc leaves out some of the key tracks, including Metal Machine Music's ferocious younger brother "Fire Music" and many of the startling spoken-word pieces (performed by a variety of actors including Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Elizabeth Ashley and Willem Dafoe). Reed has always had a bit of prankster in him and I think the limited availability of one of his great works plays directly to this rather perverse side of him. Because of this the unedited version of The Raven sits smiling just waiting for future fans to be blown away by its many charms.

Kickstarting with Willem Dafoe's chilling reading of part of The Conqueror Worm over an astonishing sonic landscape Reed worked up (fittingly billed as 'electronic music' on the albums inner sleeve), The Raven announces its ambition (and welcomed pretension) immediately. Up next is "Overture" a screaming sax-fueled (played brilliantly by Doug Wieselman) punk blowout that collapses into the lovely "Old Poe", featuring Buscemi's moving monologue on the trials of aging. Reed's gentle electric guitar playing melds in perfectly with the striking Friedrich Paravicini cello solo for "Ligiea". After this tranquil piece, guided by Dafoe's tender reading, The Raven really takes-off with the furious "Edgar Allen Poe", one of the most explosive pure-punk tracks Reed produced since the seventies. Telling the tale of Poe, "not exactly the boy next door" Reed creates a raging steamrolling knock-out of a track that rocks like a motherfucker. This is Lou Reed at his fire-breathing best and the interplay between Reed and his longtime band (featuring the brilliant Mike Rathke and Fernando Saunders) is simply stunning to hear.

After some more of Lou's startling electronic contributions, one of The Ravens great tracks comes into play and "Call on Me" stands as one of Reed's most moving modern songs. Featuring a stirring Laurie Anderson spoken word section and glorious string arrangement from Jane Scarpantoni, "Call on Me" is vintage Lou Reed and it would become a live favorite on subsequent tours.
After "Call on Me" the fabulous instrumental "A Thousand Departed Friends", one of the best of Reed's career, leads into the wonderfully corrosive "Change", which features Reed hilariously lamenting that changes are "are always for the worst". After the Dafoe read "The Fall of the House of Usher", with some chilling horror-film sound effects by Reed and Hal Willner, two of The Raven's most surprising tracks play out with eerie reworkings of two of Reed's greatest tracks, Berlin's "The Bed" and Transformer's "Perfect Day", both featuring the vocals of acclaimed Reed discovery Antony.
Reworking two of his own greatest songs on a tribute to one of his great literary heroes is a bold and cocky move. It's also a brilliant one as The Raven is as much about celebrating the career of Lou Reed as Edgar Allen Poe. The new version of "The Bed" is particularly jaw-dropping and stands as a foreshadowing of the full Berlin renaissance that happened after The Raven. Disc One closes with the title track, again read by Dafoe, and the delightfully daffy "Balloon", featuring the vocal work of Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

An odd companion piece to Transformer's "Goodnight Ladies", the Steve Buscemi sung "Broadway Song" kicks off Disc 2 of The Raven, a collection of songs and music that is even bolder than the already far-out first section. After Part One of "The Tell-Tale Heart", The Raven gets one of its most explosive tracks with "Blind Rage", a face-punching and screaming song that finds Reed paying lyrical tribute to The Velvet Underground reject that would become one of his first solo album's best cuts, "I Can't Stand It". The crunchy and feedback drenched guitar interplay here between Reed and Rathke is particularly noteworthy.

"Burning Embers", with Tony Smith's thunderous drumming providing the album with some of its most exciting rhythmic patterns, follows part two of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Reed mixes Poe's amazing lyricism with his own bold lyrical prowess. Following the electronic stylings of the frantic spoken-word piece "Imp of the Pervers" The Raven gets its gentlest and perhaps greatest piece, the haunting "Vanishing Act".
Taking its place as one of Lou Reed's greatest ballads, "Vanishing Act" is a real work of beauty. With a tip of the hat to The New York Dolls masterful "Looking for a Kiss", "Vanishing Act is an exquisite piece featuring one of the most tender vocals Reed has put on vinyl since The Velvet Underground's third album and the string section from Jane Scarpantoni has become one of my favorite moments in music...ever.

Two more spoken word pieces follow the stunning "Vanishing Act" before one of the most noteworthy and exciting collaborations of Lou Reed's career occurs. While Reed had worked quite a bit with Ornette Coleman's brilliant partner in noise Don Cherry in the seventies, he had never worked with the great Coleman himself until The Raven's funkiest track, "Guilty". Driven by Coleman's wonderfully off-kiler alto-sax, "Guilty" is perhaps The Raven's most joyous sounding song and would have been right at home on Ecstasy, the acclaimed Reed masterpiece that preceded The Raven in 2000.
Perhaps the most soulful track in Reed's canon "I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum)" is maybe the most surprising track on The Raven. Reed has always been a great fan of soul music but that influence has never been more felt that in the call and response "I Wanna Know". The song adds another piece to the complex and never ending puzzle that is Lou Reed's career, a more than five-decade journey that has never offered anything close to predictability.
After paying tribute to his own and Poe's "The Bells" perhaps the most anticipated collaboration of The Raven occurs with the short but infectious "Hop Frog". Featuring the first studio-recorded work between Lou Reed and David Bowie since their mythic time together on Transformer, "Hop Frog" is a bit anti-climatic but hearing Reed and Bowie together again is still chilling stuff. "Hop Frog" is goofy but oddly anthemic and is The Ravens most playful moment.

After a couple of more spoken word pieces The Raven nears its conclusion with Reed delivering another one of his great unheralded tracks, the majestic "Who Am I? (Tripitena's Song)". A stunning powerhouse of a song that Reed would revisit again on the self-compiled best-of collection NYC Man, "Who Am I" is a tribute to the absolute genius of Lou Reed. How an album with songs this compelling and exciting be dismissed with such callousness by so-called music authorities is beyond me.

"Who Am I" is the penultimate track on the single disc version of The Raven but the unedited set contains two more wonderful surprises, including the scholarly sounding "Courtly Orangutans" and the absolutely monstrous "Fire Music", a track that finds Lou Reed revisiting his most controversial moment.
Credited only with 'Lou Reed-Electronic Music', "Fire Music" is nearly three minutes of raging Metal Machine Music like racket that will send most listeners running for the skip button. It's my favorite track on The Raven and a fabulous reminder of Lou Reed's glorious obsession with noise. Nobody can create of symphony out of feedback like Lou Reed and "Fire Music" is a pulverising piece and, frankly, its omission from the single disc version of The Raven causes me to dismiss that edited suite completely.
The near seven minute "Guardian Angel" closes The Raven and, like the rest of the album, it is a wonderfully potent summation of a career that has embraced all of popular music's disparate elements. Featuring a wonderful horn arrangement by Steven Bernstein, the title character of "Guardian Angel" could probably be thought of as Reed's own inner genius...a genius that has kept him the most interesting American Rock Artist since Elvis Presley.

Lou Reed writes in the liner-notes to The Raven that "Poe is the father to William Burroughs and Hubert Selby". Lou Reed is the father to most of Rock Music's most interesting figures since that seventies and The Raven is one of the most necessary chapters of his career. With his sure to be jaw-dropping collaboration with Metallica on the way, now is the time to revisit some of Reed's most challenging works and The Raven is absolutely among that group. The double-disc version is sadly out of print here in the States but used copies can be found. Anyone who admires and values Lou Reed (or Rock Music in general) should seek out a copy for their collection if they don't have it. Without it you have what can only be called a big gap in your record library. -Jeremy Richey, 2011-

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