White Light/White Heat

(1968), 7/10
Abandoning the sweet ballads like ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ from their debut, the Velvets pursued an altogether noisier and more extreme agenda with their second release. Like the debut, it’s possible to see the influence of White Light/White Heat everywhere, from the noise rock of bands like Sonic Youth to the semi-rehearsed punk aesthetic of the two chord, seventeen minute ‘Sister Ray’. As a result, it’s hard to find any albums from 1968 that hold up so well years later – Tucker’s low key drumming and the dirty and primitive guitars keep this album a long way from rock genericism, while Reed and Cale provide plenty of personality to sustain even the longer songs. In terms of songwriting and even general listenability, White Light/White Heat falls quite a way short of the debut in quality, but it’s captivating all the same, the sound of a band making music oblivious to any commercial concessions and inventing much of the framework for subsequent indie music along the way. The two controversial songs on this album are also the two longest. The eight minutes of ‘The Gift’ feature a monologue about a young man who posts himself to his girlfriend, delivered in Cale’s Welsh accent, over a wall of guitar noise; by nature it’s difficult for the piece to retain playability after multiple listens. Meanwhile, the side long ‘Sister Ray’ could have stood some trimming, but it’s an absolutely pivotal piece in the history of rock music, with its two chord attack and catalogue of licentiousness providing plenty of inspiration for the less family-oriented end of the rock spectrum. Fortunately for the balance of the record, the shorter songs are much more approachable, surprisingly hooky and likeable garage rock. The call and response of the title track and the melodic and low key ‘Here She Comes Now’ are both surprisingly sweet, while Reed cuts loose on the chaotic ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ uses an atmospheric droning melody that’s surprisingly effective and approachable. White Light/White Heat isn’t necessarily an album that demands a lot of air time; it’s too harsh to feel like playing too often, but it still feels fresh in the 21st century.

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