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Puttin’ on the Ritz: White Light/White Heat

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The Velvet Underground’s sophomore album White Light/White Heat ranks as one of the most influential albums of all time. Released in 1968, it was born out of a collision of primitive garage rock, minimalism borrowed from avant-garde classical music and lyrics that reflected the grit of their New York streets. On top of that, it was produced with an approach that threw conventional fidelity to the wind.

One of moments that epitomizes the album’s frenzy comes in “I Heard Her Call My Name.” After Lou Reed sings the line, “Then my mind split open,” in the second chorus, his guitar emits an ear-splitting shriek of feedback that nearly swallows his three bandmates. It sonically reproduces the preceding lyric with one of the single-most brutal guitar sounds ever recorded by a rock band.

Puttin’ on the Ritz doesn’t try to recreate that moment on their song-by-song reworking of the Velvets’ classic. In fact, vocalist BJ Rubin doesn’t even sing the line, on that chorus or the previous one. Maybe they decided they couldn’t do justice to this seminal moment. Or maybe they simply forgot that part of the song. Which is the problem with this White Light/White Heat. Described in its press release as “part homage, part personal exploration, part deconstruction and part reinterpretation,” it doesn’t settle on any of these. The band can’t seem to decide whether to put a jazz spin on the pre-punk classic or poke fun at a sacred cow.

POTR is the brainchild of Rubin and drummer Kevin Shea. Rubin (a one-time associate producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) holds the Velvets dear to his heart, having listened to the original album during his daily commute upon first moving to New York. Shea is well versed in wiseacre music, most notably jazz irreverents Mostly Other People Do the Killing, whose bassist Moppa Elliot and saxophonist Jon Irabagon join the madness, along with trumpeter Nate Wooley and trombonist Sam Kulick.

The title track is turned into a call-and-response swing number, which might have worked if Rubin wasn’t so abrasive a singer. This is a band that was once called “best punk-comedy cabaret act,” after all. “The Gift,” essentially a short story narrated over a two-chord groove, fares better, with the horns doing their best to evoke Reed’s feedback solo. It’s not fair to expect a narrator as nuanced as John Cale’s original performance, but Rubin sounds like he’s reading a transcription for the first time, as he stumbles over phrases and pauses mid-thought.

Things pick up on the surreal “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” which includes trade-off vocals like the original, and articulates the lyrics a little better. “Here She Comes Now” was originally played out like a pretty folk rock song and the group attempts to make it ugly and forgettable.

“Sister Ray” became the original album’s centerpiece, a 17-minute tour de force detailing a depraved, destructive night of sailors, their dates and their drugs. It all came together with slight variations on a G chord. With Shea’s Talibam! bandmate Matt Mottel joining in to recreate Cale’s organ part, Puttin’ On the Ritz finally hits on something. Their “Sister Ray” sounds partially like a mutant soul take on the original. The horns make an unshakeable team as they blow the main riff, while Shea plays like he wants it the whole thing to fall apart, the polar opposite of Maureen Tucker’s primal beats on the original. Lasting just a few seconds longer than the original, it shows what the group only hinted at up until this point – the ability to dream up a whacky idea and take it somewhere beyond irony.

Of course the original album annoyed listeners upon its release, so maybe POTR is on the right track. Give it 10 years and listen again to see.

Originally Published