Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Lou Reed tribute album: My best-case scenario

The Lou Reed tribute albums are coming. I know it, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I actually tend to like tribute albums. I'm fond of cover songs and watching artists put their own unique spins on other artists' work. Heck, I've even curated a lengthy playlist of existing Lou Reed cover songs on Grooveshark, and it gets fairly regular play. On the other hand, the post-mortem tribute album tends to be tacky and hacky, full of overly reverent renditions by artists who simply aren't suited to the songs they're covering.

That got me thinking idly about who I'd put on my personal dream tribute to Lou Reed, which as usual led to me thinking obsessively about it, which led to me writing it all down and foisting it on you. I know full well that there's no way anyone would ever be able to pull together a lineup this expansive, but that's why I call it a dream. This is my money-is-no-object list. The only real requirement is being alive at the time of writing. (I know a few of the groups I included are on hiatus, but it's not unheard of for bands to reunite for a good cause.)

I selected artists who either had a connection to Lou or who I just think would sound great. Most importantly, I picked artists who I thought were specifically suited to each song. I didn't include all of my favorite Lou Reed songs. As much as I love, say, "Like a Possum" or "Street Hassle," I couldn't imagine anyone doing a cover of either that would trump any of the songs that made the cut. I did include some songs that aren't among my favorites, either because they're especially significant in the Lou Reed canon ("Perfect Day") or because I thought of a way to cover them that I felt was especially kick-ass ("What Becomes a Legend Most"). Like I said, I've put way too much thought into this.

For those who are already wondering why they've read this far, I'll plug in the list of songs and artists. (I've arranged this as a double-CD, because I came up in the '90s and that's how we rolled.) Those who aren't bored or annoyed after that can keep on reading for my reasoning behind each pick. Just keep in mind that this album will never exist, though lord knows I'm dying to hear it.

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed
Disc 1
1.      Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
2.      Rock & Roll – Prince
3.      Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
4.      Caroline Says Part II & Part I – Cat Power
5.      Who Am I? – David Bowie
6.      Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
7.      Don't Talk to Me About Work – Mo Tucker
8.      Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
9.      Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
10.  Doin' the Things That We Want To – Fear
11.  Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady
12.  Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
13.  What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
14.  My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
15.  Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
16.  Magic and Loss – John Cale

Disc 2
1.      All Tomorrow's Parties – Björk
2.      Why Can't I Be Good? – Eels
3.      Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
4.      How Do You Speak to an Angel? – Joanna Newsom
5.      Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
6.      How Do You Think It Feels? – Beck
7.      NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
8.      Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
9.      I'm Waiting for the Man – Gorillaz
10.  The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
11.  The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
12.  Women – Shane MacGowan
13.  Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
14.  Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
15.  Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
16.  I Love You – Laurie Anderson

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed

Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
Any Lou Reed tribute has to lead off with the opening track from New York, my pick for the peak of Lou's lyrical career. Likewise, any Lou Reed tribute requires the participation of fellow New York rock poet Patti Smith. They were friends and cohorts who lived their art the way few people have the talent or privilege to. I can think of plenty of people who could sing "Romeo Had Juliette" and nail it, but I don't believe there's anyone who could embody and understand Lou's bittersweet story of love and squalor in the pre-Giuliani Big Apple better than Patti.

Rock & Roll – Prince
If there's one human alive who can sell the story of Jeannie and her life-saving discovery of rock & roll as well as Lou himself, it's Prince. He could take it the funk route, but I'd rather hear him in full-on jam mode with his rocked-out 3rdEyeGirl backing band. I can't imagine a better embodiment of the transformative power of rock music than hearing this song fade out behind a blistering Prince guitar solo.

Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
Maybe Kevin Barnes would exist without Lou Reed, but I doubt he'd be quite the same Kevin Barnes. They exude such a similar combination of sleaze, sexuality and intellect that Of Montreal has to be included here. "Sally Can't Dance" also incorporates a campy sheen that plays directly to Barnes' strengths. The guy was born to sneer "She danced with Picasso's illegitimate mistress and wore Kenneth Lane jewelry."

Caroline Says II & I – Cat Power
The two sides of Chan Marshall mesh nicely with the two sides of Caroline (well, to the extent that anything related to Berlin happens "nicely"). Transpose parts one and two and the songs make a perfect medley, moving from the haunting whisper of early Cat Power to her bolder, more boisterous current sound. I don't think anything would be lost by switching the songs' order – Caroline's tale is a pretty bleak one no matter the sequence.

Lou and Bowie are forever intertwined in the public perception, so it might make sense to pair the latter up with one of the former's best-known songs. Twenty or even ten years ago I'd have thought the same thing, but this soft-spoken, self-explorative cut from The Raven could scarcely be a better fit for Bowie's current sensibilities. This cover wouldn't feel out of place on Bowie's excellent The Next Day. Both that album and this song find renowned artists taking a long, not always uplifting, look at their lives and what they'll mean to the world.

Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
To be honest, I'm kinda sick of "Perfect Day." Ever since it was used so brilliantly in Trainspotting, its cultural presence has been slowly swelling, until now it's arguably eclipsed "Walk on the Wild Side" as Lou's signature song for casual appreciators. (I saw at least one headline announcing the death of "Perfect Day Singer Lou Reed.") It's cropping up in new commercials every few months and getting covered by all sorts of folks who I'd rather hadn't. Still, it would be unforgivable to exclude it here. Of course it's still a beautiful, brilliant song at heart. It just needs some experienced hands to steer it in the right direction. There are few musical hands more weathered than the Blind Boys of Alabama's. The venerable haunted-gospel group backed Lou on one of The Raven's best tracks, and I reckon they'd know how to steal the soul of "Perfect Day" back from the Susan Boyles of the world.

Mo retired from music for the second time more than a decade ago and shows no inclination toward picking it up again. But if anything is going to get her back in a studio, if not behind a drum kit, it's a tribute to Lou Reed. This track from Legendary Hearts is right in line with the choppy rhythms and blue collar themes of her criminally underrated solo albums. Mo's weirdly evocative monotone yap would mesh marvelously with this playful paean to creative ennui.

Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
I'm pretty sure that for the last decade or so Antony just traveled everywhere as a piece of Lou's luggage. He's guested on all sorts of live Lou performances and contributed eerie, countertenor interpretations of a number of Lou's classic songs. In keeping with his vocal stylings, most of those are slow and somber numbers like "Perfect Day" and "Candy Says." I'd like to see what Antony could do with something as rough and muscular as "Waves of Fear." Metallica, of course, is inextricably linked to Lou Reed due to Lulu. They'd be ideal for infusing even more metal into what's already one of the heaviest slabs of rock in the Lou Reed canon.  Keep the towering guitars and throat-grabbing drumbeats of the original in place and I think you'd have an ethereal delight.

Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
This bitter screed from the have-not protagonist of Berlin could translate pretty easily into a stripped-down country ballad. It's not the type of thing you want in the hands of an amateur, though, so I'm giving it to one of the most inveterate veterans in the country game. Waylon Jennings would be my first pick, as I think his voice matches these lyrics incredibly well, but he was discourteous enough to die. So Merle it is!

Given Lou's standing as a godfather of punk rock, this album has to feature at least one good hardcore track. I feel a little bad not working in someone from the New York scene, but Lee Ving's raging cover of "Hoochie Coochie Man" in the marvelous rock show movie Get Crazy (co-starring, not coincidentally, Lou Reed) convinces me that he's just the guy to trash up Lou's stirring salute to Martin Scorcese, Sam Shepard and the other film and theater artists who made him smile and think.

Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady 
Craig Finn covering Lou Reed just sounds right, doesn't it? This sleazily literate account of infidelity and finger-pointing from Ecstasy should be right in his wheelhouse.

Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
As probably Lou's best known song, this one demands a unique treatment. I think it has to be hip-hop, not just because the rhyme scheme lends itself to that form, but also to wash out the taste of that awful Marky Mark treatment. RZA strikes me as just the right producer to chop up the original Transformer mix and coat that famous bass line with grime. With RZA at the controls, it would make sense to put the Wu-Tang Clan on MC duties. I probably would do just that if Ol' Dirty Bastard was alive, but imagine Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo trading verses about Warhol's Factory crew? (Plus Big Boi, Cool Breeze and the other Dirty Southers, of course.) I'm not entirely sure how to handle the "colored girls" on the chorus, but I imagine these guys could swing something intriguing.

What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
I can't imagine much more dreadful than seeing Lou Reed's body of work turned into one of those posthumous stage musicals the folks on Broadway love to crank out. That said, Lou did dig a good musical, as evidenced by his Time Rocker collaboration with Robert Wilson and his contributions to two different Kurt Weill tributes. I think this semi-sequel to the Velvets' "New Age" cries out to be reborn as a show tune. It's got a Norma Desmond-esque faded star, a singalong chorus and plenty of showy flourishes. I'm not up on my Broadway stars, so maybe there are song-and-dance folks who could handle this better than Sutton Foster. I'm giving it to her anyway because I really miss Bunheads.

My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
Lou's '70s glam persona positioned him somewhere between the slick shimmer of David Bowie and the feral ferocity of Iggy Pop. Let's embrace the latter and let Iggy snarl his way through this kick-ass obscurity. This was originally the theme song of a sexy, dog-faced, Mick Jagger-inspired super villain in an animated headache called Rock & Rule. That movie also featured the briefest snippet of an Iggy Pop song, so there's your tie-in if for some reason you need one.

Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
It struck me recently that "Sister Ray" would sound amazing with its original instrumentation and a genuine R&B singer on vocals – think Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. Unfortunately, two of those guys are dead and I'm dubious about Ben at 75 being willing or able to sustain his youthful energy for a 17-minute lyrical orgy of sex and violence. That brings us to the current Funkiest Being on Earth, Janelle Monae. Janelle could slaughter "Sister Ray." There's no question that she could keep the electricity flowing for the duration. I would expect this track to be the highlight of this tribute album. It actually upsets me that I'm not listening to Janelle croon about Cecil and his new piece right this second.

Magic and Loss – John Cale
Lou's most overt exploration of the meaning of death is also one of his greatest artistic achievements. Not only was John Cale Lou's longest-tenured collaborator, he's also exactly the right kind of performer to do this song justice. Set to a gentle piano arrangement, his broken-hearted baritone and gentle Welsh accent would make a beautiful evocation of Lou's passing through fire.


I swear I'm not giving this to Björk just because I know how great Lou's lyrics sound coming from a strong-voiced woman with a European accent. But sure, the Nico factor is in play here. Beyond that, imagine the orchestration and sheer power Björk would invest in this. If she could re-access the towering eccentricity of the Post era, this could be a classic.

Mark Oliver Everett is another artist whose existence seems unlikely without Lou Reed. His witty cynicism and engrossing explorations of how death reflects life are right in concert with Lou's defining themes. Also, he knows how to rock. He'd be able to mine all the self-deprecatory cleverness from this inexplicably obscure gem, Lou's contribution to Wim Wenders' Far Away, So Close soundtrack.

Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
The least-known name on this list, Minnesotan art-glam icon Mark Mallman deserves to be way more famous. I have to believe that the aching intensity he'd bring to the piano-driven opener from The Bells would help prove that to the world.

OK, I'll admit I like the cheesiness of pairing an artist known for her harp-playing with a song about an angel. But my main reason for giving this defiantly wordy, self-satirizing song to Joanna is her penchant for multisyllabic lyrical verbosity. I'd love to hear her distinctive warble deliver a line like "What do you do with your pragmatic passions / With your classically neurotic style / What do you do with your vague self-comprehension / What can you say when they lie?"

Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
Legend has it that Richman was a Velvet Underground fanatic right from the start, going back to the band's infamous club gigs. The early Modern Lovers sound would seem to bear out that influence. He'd be great tapping into the amphetamine-fueled craziness of this raucous run-through of Lou's rogue's gallery.

It wouldn't have occurred to me that Beck's a big Lou Reed fan, but it makes sense. I couldn't decide whether to let him pull off one of his insane rave-ups or keep him in mournful Sea Change mode (the latter being my personal Beck preference). Here's a song that allows him to indulge both sides, a phenomenal, bitter slow-burner from Berlin.

NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
While far too many people dismiss TMBG as a novelty act, those in the know understand that the two Johns are brilliant songsmiths with real versatility. Rather than hand them one of Lou's more out-there numbers, I'd love to see them sink their teeth into this heartfelt exploration of manhood and the city that they and Lou all loved so dearly.

Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
I'll admit I'm toeing the novelty line here, but I genuinely think the Velvets' deeply creepy duet would sound amazing as a haunted bluegrass tune. You can decide for yourself whether she'd be game for tackling a nightmare story of surgery gone wrong, but there's no denying that when Dolly goes dark she can be spooky as hell. Putting her on the John Cale parts and her old "Islands in the Stream" mate Kenny on the intentionally discordant Lou lines would be amusing on the first listen and increasingly unsettling with every subsequent spin.

The Gorillaz/Lou Reed collaboration "Some Kind of Nature" was a neat surprise, a smooth melding of sensibilities that somehow made both acts sound even hipper. "I'm Waiting for the Man" is another Lou song that's been covered to death, but I think Gorillaz dark-but-bouncy electronic sensibilities could shine a new light on things. A breathy Damon Albarn vocal is never a bad thing either.

The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
Lou's band members were the unsung heroes of his recent output, although they weren't unsung by Lou himself. His always made sure to give them their props during live gigs, even including a solo song by bassist Fernando Saunders on the Animal Serenade CD. Saunders, guitarist Mike Rathke and drummer Tony Smith backed Lou for the better part of two decades, so it seems only fitting to give them their due with a cover of this instrumental deep cut from Rock & Roll Heart. Free jazz legend Ornette Coleman collaborated with Lou a number of times, so let's put him on sax and see how weird we can get with it.

The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
One of the most widely derided songs Lou ever recorded, this deeply odd ode to hip-hop takes a lot of flak for its dorky rhymes and curiously waffle-centric imagery. Y'know who else likes rapping about non-sequiturs and food? Yes, yes, Weird Al, but y'know who else? The Beastie Boys, that's who. What's more, they're fellow New York icons with roots in punk rock. Get longtime Beastie collaborator Biz Markie to sit in for the dearly departed MCA and we might just have a reassessment of Lou's hip-hop prowess.

Women – Shane MacGowan
This isn't one of the best songs in Lou's repertoire – its goofy satire of masculinity borders on annoying – but Shane MacGowan's whiskey-strangled slur would breathe new, sleazy life into it. It'd be worth it just to hear him rasp out "I... love... WOMEN!" as the music swells.

Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
As far as I know TV On The Radio has no direct connection to Lou Reed, but they're a band who can do no wrong in my book. Their powerful, flawlessly produced sound manages to be both expansive and introspective, which makes them an ideal fit for this sad, sweeping rumination on the inevitability of death.

Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
Lou's fondness for Victoria Williams always warmed my heart. Stylistically they're miles apart, but they complemented each other surprisingly well. Lou's rendition of "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" is one of the peaks of Sweet Relief, the benefit covers album that brought Victoria to the attention of the alt-rock world in the early '90s, and he contributed guitar and backing vocals to her "Crazy Mary" on a number of live appearances. Victoria opened for Lou the one time I saw him play live, and she just about stole the show, her sweetness and light playing as a welcome contrast to Lou's grumpy stoicism. Of all the songs in Lou's catalog, the hopeful, gospel-tinged "Teach the Gifted Children" sounds most like it could've been written by Victoria Williams. I'm not sure where Victoria's battle with MS stands – the dearth of new music over the last decade makes me fear it's not going well – but if she was up to singing it, think she'd nail this one with trademark steely sweet folkitude.

Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
I'm almost tempted to have Bruce do "Street Hassle" just for the novelty of him reprising his cameo on the original recording, but when it comes down to it I can't think of another performer better suited to mine the joy and sheer rockingness out of this song. It's been over-covered and redefined so many times over (as lovely as that Cowboy Junkies version is, it bugs me that it's  eclipsed the original for a lot of people (also that the Junkies get too much credit for their "re-imagining," as they're pretty closely covering a live arrangement from late-period Velvet Underground concerts)), it would be beautiful to hear Springsteen belt it back to its former glory. It makes a perfect almost-closing track to be capped off by a sweet little coda.

I Love You – Laurie Anderson
Tell me you wouldn't cry. Heck, I'm tearing up just thinking about it.