Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Chelsea Girl - Nico
A mono pressing of Nico's debut album. I was watching a dvd of a Nico concert from much later in her career and after the show some college kid interviewed a bored Nico in her dressing room. He asked her why there were no songs from this album in her repertoire. Her response was something like they weren't her songs, although that did not stop her from performing in her concert all of the Velvet Underground songs she sang on their debut album. I know what she meant though, this record is completely unlike all her other records, it attempts to mold her into a pop chanteuse with commercial appeal. Good luck with that. The liner notes compare her to Mary Travers (which is ludicrous) but I think the real role model here for producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon was Judy Collins. This record sounds a lot like the chamber pop and genteel folk rock albums Collins cut with Joshua Rifkin in the mid-1960s. That is practically the opposite of Nico's personal style which emphasizes minimalist rock and roll and moody drones. Despite Fallon and Wilson's meddling, the presence of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale both as musicians and as songwriters throughout the record still gives it the feel of an extension of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" although much less charged. The album begins however with the first of three songs written by Jackson Browne who had a romantic relationship with Nico for awhile. "The Fairest of the Seasons" was co-written with Gregory Copeland and features a delicate guitar accompaniment from Browne bolstered by strings. The song is typical of Browne as he verbosely considers commitment issues. If he were singing it I'd be bored, but the inherent drama in Nico's deep voice makes the song seem profound, even moving. The string arrangement is heavy-handed, but I think the instrumental color it provides greatly enhances the feeble tune. Browne also wrote "These Days" which has identical accompaniment. I'm no fan of Browne's own version of this song, it sounds phony to me, but Nico's worldly persona and the heavy grain of her vocal give the song the gravity and feeling it needs to overcome Browne's glib cleverness. It is one of my favorite songs on the album. "Little Sister" was written by John Cale and Lou Reed and its dark, romantic lyrics are more consistent with Nico's gothic persona. Cale's droning organ is also more in keeping with Nico's personal style although the song also features strings and a flute that apparently Nico found very upsetting. Admittedly the cheery chamber pop that results works against the dark tone of the song, but it does not bother me too much. This is more of a problem with John Cale's bleak "Winter Song" where the flute and strings are truly obtrusive and completely undermine the feeling of the rest of the song. This is unfortunate because the song is otherwise perfect for Nico. Side one ends with "It Was a Pleasure Then" by Cale, Reed and Nico. This is the song on the album that is truest to Nico's style. It is a minimalist tune featuring Nico solemnly intoning the gloomy lyrics with Reed noodling around on guitar emitting occasional shrieks of feedback and Cale brutally sawing away on his viola. No chamber pop on this one, it reflects both Nico's past with the experimentally minded Velvet Underground and the uncompromising and personal music she would make in the future. A great song. Side two opens with Reed and Sterling Morrison's "Chelsea Girls" which is based on the Andy Warhol film of the same name that Nico appeared in. It is the song that sounds most like Nico's work on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" aside from the string arrangement and flute which once again undermine the dark lyrics of the song. The song sticks pretty close to the film, but you don't need to have seen the film to understand the lyrics which are typical of the detached descriptions of decadence favored by Reed in songs like "Venus in Furs" and "Femme Fatale" and it ranks with Reed's best work from that period. Nico's vocal is mesmerizing, I wish I could erase the strings and flute from it, it would be a masterpiece. "I'll Keep It With Mine" was written by Bob Dylan another paramour of Nico's. According to her, he wrote the song about her and her baby and gave her an acetate of it to record. She waited too long though and Judy Collins beat her to it. It was also sung by Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention on their second album, "Fairport Convention." Nico's performance is surprisingly energetic, she sounds very inspired. Nico is a far more limited singer than Denny or Collins but I think this is the definitive version of the song. "Somewhere There's A Feather" is another Jackson Browne song which Nico sings with engaging enthusiasm. The optimism expressed by the lyrics couldn't be further from Nico's oeuvre, but she sounds very convincing crooning it and to his credit Browne manages to restrain his usual long-winded approach to write a direct and lovely song. "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" was written by Lou Reed for the Velvet Underground. If you think Nico is a bad singer you should check out the Velvets' demo on the box set, "Peel Slowly and See" featuring John Cale on lead vocal. The song sounds dreary and lifeless in the Velvet's version, Nico's version is so much more vibrant and appealing. On this tune at least the string arrangement makes the song stronger. The album concludes with Tim Hardin's "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce." This song has a very minimal arrangement relying on the intimacy of Nico's vocal to carry the song much like most of her later solo work. The song is about Lenny Bruce who had recently died and the song decries his drug use which seems pretty ironic coming from Hardin, a longtime junkie who would also die from a drug overdose just like Bruce (and of course Nico herself was no stranger to drug addiction either.) I think this album is largely a betrayal of Nico as an artist, but I still like it. Yes it is over-produced, but the songs are terrific and suit her voice and persona extremely well. In contrast to the gloom and doom she projected on her later records, on this album Nico sounds lively, even charming at times. As a big chamber pop fan, I often like the sound of the record even when it works against Nico's vision. Besides the compelling quality in Nico's deep dramatic voice ultimately transcends Wilson's attempt to smother her with pretty music, her inner darkness can't be suppressed. Unlike her later records where the unrelenting gloom of the music can be wearying (to me at least), this album, with its dynamic tension between the singer and the music, is consistently interesting and stimulating. Recommended to people who prefer "Femme Fatale" over "Heroin."