Album of the Week: Various Artists, 'I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground and Nico'

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Various Artists, 'I'll Be Your Mirror'
Various Artists, 'I'll Be Your Mirror - A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico' (Verve)
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The Velvet Underground's debut album came out nearly 55 years ago, but endures as a dangerous, beautiful, provocative, and revelatory deconstruction of rock music. So, let's just get this out of the way: I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico is not a modern upgrade. What it absolutely is: a song-by-song funhouse mirror featuring some of the Velvets' most-talented fans.

Contributors include the Velvets' scene-shifting contemporary Iggy Pop, early adopters such as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and a crew of current music festival staples like Courtney Barnett and the National's frontman Matt Berninger. Some treat the songs' original tone and structure like gospel, while others pay tribute by tapping into something uniquely wild.

Back in 1984, Michael Stipe and R.E.M. reverently covered "Pale Blue Eyes" from the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album. Stipe is equally adept riding Lou Reed's vocal wake on "Sunday Morning," backed by wind instruments and electronics. Probably most on the nose, though, would be Kurt Vile's swaggering take on the rambling, rumbling "Run Run Run."

Sharon Van Etten's embodiment of "Femme Fatale" slows down the Nico-fronted song and ratchets up its pathos. "She's going to break your heart in two" doesn't just feel like a threat, it's a given. For "All Tomorrow's Parties," St. Vincent eliminates much of the original in favor of spoken word and robotic vocal effects. It could be nodding to "O Superman" by Laurie Anderson, Reed's longtime partner.

Beyond celebrating Lou Reed and Nico, the album finds ways to delight in John Cale, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison's avant-garde accoutrements. On "Venus In Furs," noted violin experimenter Andrew Bird, backed by Lucius, sounds pleased to try out some of his most discordant runs over a fingerboard. Throwing things into chaos is also central to Iggy Pop and Matt Sweeney's fuzz-blasted "European Son."

For as much as we tend to make musicians larger than life, it's plausible to imagine all of these artists actually owning and enjoying such a foundational and influential record. Even if not, these covers are executed with care - with credit due to executive producer Hal Willner, a longtime collaborator of Reed's, who died not long after completing work on I'll Be Your Mirror. Hearing this album might briefly bring an engaged listener over to the originals for comparison, but there's more than enough here to return to for deeper exploration.

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