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Review: The Velvet Underground’s Self-Titled ‘Super Deluxe Edition’ Is a Treasure

velvet underground, reissue
SPIN Rating: 10 of 10
Release Date: November 24, 2014
Label: Polydor / Universal Music Enterprises

Devoted legions of Velvet Underground fans have probably heard some or most of what’s found on the 45th-anniversary reissue of the band’s self-titled 1969 album. Critical consensus says that the 1969 LP is a true classic, showing Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and new member Doug Yule, who replaced John Cale, moving away from the gritty gloom of “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Sister Ray” in favor of gentler, warmer, poppier cuts like “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Candy Says,” and “After Hours.” It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops — “The Murder Mystery” is as psychosis-inducing as anything they ever did and the lovier-dovier songs still feature undercurrents of menace — but it was still a hard left away from the droning Warhol-Nico days.

The super-deluxe version of The Velvet Underground is presented in three versions here: A remaster by original engineer Val Valentin, the “Closet Mix” by Lou Reed, which focuses more on the frontman’s vocals and guitar playing, and “the promotional mono mix,” for all the audiophiles. After those three discs are the set’s real treasures. Disc four, “1969 Sessions,” features 14 tracks that were intended to be the Velvets’ fourth album but were shelved when the band was dropped by MGM. Some of these songs would end up on Loaded (“Rock and Roll,” “Ride Into the Sun”) or Lou Reed’s solo stuff (“I Can’t Stand It,” “Andy’s Chest,” “Lisa Says”), post-breakup Velvet albums VU and Another View, or later box sets like Peel Slowly and See. Eight of the songs are presented in their original form, with the remaining six receiving new mixes that feature better sound and slightly tweaked parts in, almost always, longer versions. Even if the band considered them demos, they’re anything but half-baked filler — “I’m Sticking With You” is one of their most playful tracks, “One of These Days” is an excellent foray into country, “Ride Into the Sun” is beautiful as an instrumental, and “Foggy Notion” is a classic rock jam, while the primitive takes on “Rock and Roll,” “Lisa Says,” and “Andy’s Chest” are fascinating looks at how Reed evolved.

The real gem, a mish-mash of ’69 live recordings from the Matrix in San Francisco, is spread over the final two discs. Some were released on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live with others seeing light on The Quine Tapes, but what’s presented here is more coherent in sound and quality. “I Can’t Stand It Anymore” comes with the bonus of Reed talking about an dead infant, Kierkegaard, and communism, “Heroin” is tightly punishing, “Pale Blue Eyes” is beautiful in all its minute flaws, and the adventurous, nearly 37-minute rendition of “Sister Ray” comes across like a medley has so many shifts in speed, volume, and energy that it seems more like a medley than a concentrated take on the White Light/White Heat epic. It’s the brightest gem among many in the collection, which consolidates all of the group’s many faces into one cohesive opus. It’s not a set for casual fans, but how many of those do the Velvet Underground have anyway?