The really complete Velvet Underground, Helen gets loudly shy
The Velvet Underground
The Complete Matrix Tapes
They had me at “37-minute live version of ‘Sister Ray.’” That is the exact moment this writer knew he needed to own The Complete Matrix Tapes, which documents four different Velvet Underground sets at the San Francisco venue Matrix in late 1969.
Fans are intimately familiar with the churning, locomotive-on-fire 17-minute studio version on White Light/White Heat, but the version here is even more of an epic, using time and space (and drummer Maureen Tucker’s snare-drum-as-foley-art gunshots at appropriate times) as dramatic elements in Lou Reed’s tale of “debauchery and decay” and careening wildly through its curves when it heats up.
(In the liner notes, bassist/organist Doug Yule later claimed that the song’s length in live performances was originally a form of revenge against the Grateful Dead, who preceded the band onstage two evenings prior, but that’s another story.)
While the 4-CD set The Complete Matrix Tapes includes a number of previously unreleased recordings, sizable chunks of these performances had already been released on the double-album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live and the 3-CD The Quine Tapes. But, the reason this material is worth revisiting yet again is because of the astounding (yes, astounding) sound quality here, blowing the tinny 1969 and the low-fidelity audience recordings of The Quine Tapes away.
The clarity makes the performances more real and less mythical—like the group just played last week down the block—with Reed’s meaty guitar chugs, Sterling Morrison’s trademark guitar timbres and Tucker’s primitive vitality unobscured. The only people who lose here are the fanatics who bought last year’s Super Deluxe 6-CD version of The Velvet Underground, which included 2 CDs with selections from these Matrix recordings, and now have to buy them again; I see what you did there, Polydor.
This writer doesn’t recommend binge listening, due to the song repetition which can be wearying—for example, “Some Kinda Love,” “Heroin” and “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” show up on all four sets. Instead, take your time and savor the numerous highlights, like the supercharged “White Light/White Heat” (which absolutely blows the studio version away), the majestic “Ocean” and the propulsive 9-minute “What Goes On” with hypnotic organ lines.
In the intro to “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” Reed explains humorously that the track—apparently difficult listening for many—was used to empty clubs; however, those who stuck around—like those who waited 46 years to get The Complete Matrix Tapes—were rewarded
The Original Faces
Years ago, a silly question popped into this writer’s head—“Has Michael Gira of Swans ever just sat down, turned on the TV and laughed his head off at, say, an episode of Friends?”
Here’s another: has Glenn Danzig ever—ever, even as a child—eaten an ice cream cone? Do these people—purveyors of darkness, doom and gloom—ever smile when they aren’t onstage? Laugh? Surely, right? But one just can’t picture it, unless, perhaps, their enemies have just been crushed or humiliated, or something like that.
Those familiar with the compelling work of Oregon-based musician Liz Harris—better known as the one-woman band Grouper—know it to be a largely haunted and somber affair, with a permeating melancholia portrayed with fuzzy and blurry sonic fogs and beautiful, yet barely discernible singing.
Grouper’s excellent 2014 album Ruins revealed a welcome new stage in her artistic evolution, and her new band Helen, which allegedly began with the intentions of being a thrash band, offers yet another phase, with a different face of Harris.
The first part of the opening track, “Ryder,” is a bit of a red herring, featuring warbling strums of an acoustic guitar being played on what sounds like a damaged cassette player, severely warping the sounds; then, the song bursts open with a noise-pop, shimmering shoegaze approach.
The concise 79-second track “Covered in Shade” is downright bouncy, like something from the K Records family; a number of tracks—including “Felt This Way” with unrelentingly distorted guitars and “Grace” with its primal, pounding drums—ooze a strong Black Tambourine/Slumberland Records vibe.
Here’s the thing—Harris actually sounds like she’s enjoying herself, even though her singing style and reverberating vocal effects are fairly similar to what she does as Grouper. It’s an odd duality—there’s an underlying vigor but with a bangs-covering-the-eyes shyness—but it works here.