too much typing—since 2003


the story is telling a true lie

I often wonder how I'd listen to music differently if I could hear it stripped of whatever acclaim it might have received. As someone with historicist inclinations, I tend to attach some weight to critical reputation - not that I have to agree with every critical consensus, but it seems I should at least give things more of a chance, as if the fault (if I don't like it right away) might be my own rather than the music's. On the whole, I think, that attitude has worked well for me - but I do sometimes wish for the impossible dream that I could hear music all on its own, free of context both musical and extramusical. (This is a dream because music is contextual: its effects are social in an almost linguistic way, and aside from those who'd argue that there's something inherent in the relation of the physics of sound that compels certain emotional reactions, there's no way to recognize music as music outside musical context. To reverse that: once we have a musical context, we can listen, if we so choose, to anything as if it were music. And having done so, it is music - for us. Anyway.)

All of this is by way of introducing two songs by Nico: one from Chelsea Girls which is a Velvet Underground song in all but attribution, the other from The Marble Index. That album was one I'd heard of quite a bit before I finally picked up a copy: I can't remember what I'd heard of it, specifically, or what I expected (I suppose something similar to the Nico tracks on the June 1, 1974 live album). But what I got was something utterly unlike anything else I'd listened to previously - and aside from its (much inferior, to my ears) followup Desertshore, unlike anything I've heard since. There is, of course, Nico's brooding, deep voice, nearly a baritone; and that spooky harmonium that drones under most tracks, which are built on two, maybe three chords, sometimes only a single chord. But the most striking thing about the recording is John Cale's absolutely flabbergasting arrangements, here represented by "Evening of Light," probably my favorite track on the album. I could talk straightforwardly about what instruments are where, and what they do, but you can hear that - so instead I'll just say that it sounds rather like a music-box diorama that quickly turns hellish, one that presents an earth-shattering battle between a brontosaurus and a pterodactyl rather than the expected delicate Victorian porcelain-laced figures in a pas de deux.

"It Was a Pleasure Then," from Chelsea Girls, is a bit more...human...with Lou Reed's spiky guitar explorations and John Cale's abrasive viola scrapings evolving in a straightforwardly improvisatory manner. What's striking about this song for me, though - given the usual Nico voice and its smoky depths - is her clear, almost flute-like soprano register, which she uses a few times in the song to pipe out mysterious little melodies. It's not the sound one thinks of where her voice is concerned, yet its tone melds quite well with Reed's and Cale's instruments - and its flutey timbre connects the track sonically to the rest of the album, even though otherwise the song's arrangement is quite different from most of its other tracks.

And the funny thing about those musical expectations? I picked up Chelsea Girls after I'd heard The Marble Index - and its very 1966 chamber-folk arrangements (string quartets, flutes, acoustic guitars) were, in their relative conventionality, almost startling by way of contrast.

Nico "Evening of Light"
Nico "It Was a Pleasure Then"

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