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Puttin On The Ritz: White Light White Heat

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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It is rumored that the total lack of beauty on the original version of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat (Verve, 1968) widened the rift between violist, John Cale—a primary architect of the band—to such an extent that he left the band. Nothing can come, however, even remotely close to the ugly beauty of Puttin' on the Ritz's version of the seminal album from the band that Andy Warhol cofounded with Cale and Lou Reed. BJ Rubin and Kevin Shea have crafted a new re-imagining with fabulous detail, but a lot more ferocity and angst than Reed's almost gentle version, despite the use of similar techniques of acoustic feedback, distortion and plain noise from something as innocuous as a tambourine.

But the defining moments on this recreation come from vocalist, Rubin whose searing vocals are a cross between a primordial cry and the wail of a dying man on "White Light/White Heat," that propulsive track about the effects of amphetamines. "The Gift" features the laconic narration of a seemingly abstract short story, while the contrapuntal music comes at acute angles to the vocal, with Moppa Elliott's slamming bass lines, Nate Wooley's wailing trumpet, Sam Kulik's smearing trombone, and a wild romp on tenor saxophone by Jon Irabagon. In fact the saxophonist is the chief instigator, playing a perfect foil to Rubin's vocals that swing from swaggering and bold to tentative and nervy. On "Lady Godiva's Operation," Rubin sings like blue murder, almost as if the surgery on Godiva takes a turn south. Once again, Irabagon, together with Wooley, instigate Rubin into a kind of hypnotic, self-destructive final note of the song. And so on, until the seemingly interminable verses of "Sister Ray," who brandishes her sexuality like a trashy yet honest flag of existentialism, which flow from Rubin with Joyce-ian stream-of-consciousness.

When the Velvet Underground's album was first released in the late 1960s, the music reflected a deep rift between Warhol's generation and the older establishment. Velvet Underground and groups like it poured vomit-like scorn on a generation that exercised a sort of control on its freewheeling bohemianism, smacking of Haight-Ashbury's hippie culture. In today's context, the subliminal suggestions of the album are a lot more sinister, coming as it does during a period of abject denial of the collapse of the capitalist excess, be it in terms of sexuality, discrimination and racism, homophobia and ultra-conservatism.

In a well-produced dead ringer for the original album package, Hot Cup Records has once more come up with a winning combination of design and musical creativity that defies convention and scores with a wonderful combination of seriousness and black humor.

Track Listing: White Light White Heat; The Gift; Lady Godiva's Operation; Here She Comes Now; I Heard Her Call My Name; Sister Ray.

Personnel: BJ Rubin: vocals; Kevin Shea: percussion, vocals; Matthew "Moppa" Elliott: bass, vocals; Jon Irabagon: saxophone; Nate Wooley: trumpet; Sam Kulik: trombone, bass trombone; Matt Mottel: Turkish organ.

Title: White Light White Heat | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Hot Cup Records


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