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Monday, December 12, 2011

The gift that keeps on killing

Posted By on 12.12.11 at 08:00 AM

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Maybe I’m a sicko, but whenever I think of the word “gift,” I’m invariably reminded of heads being sliced open. Thank the Velvet Underground, whose 1968 song “The Gift” is permanently carved into my own head.

The first VU album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is canonical: Produced by Andy Warhol, who also designed its interactive, iconic cover of an innuendo-injected banana, its mixture of folk-rock, avant-garde classical, and coarse blues went on to influence numerous subcultural musical movements. Despite its sometimes abrasive nature, the album is nonetheless extremely glamorous and sophisticated, thanks to its gorgeous melodies and the sleepy, grave voice of model and guest vocalist Nico.

The follow-up to the debut, which bombed commercially, is White Light/White Heat, an album that only seemed to want to further alienate the VU’s fanbase. “The Gift” is the second song on the record, and its music is indicative of its sound: Garage rock played through a busted up bathroom radio. The instrumental backing derived from a jam entitled “Booker T,” a blatant reference to the Stax/Volt band Booker T. & the M.G.’s—the music is a deceptively simplistic, bluesy shuffle, in this case featuring a particularly up front bass line.

The song clocks in at over eight minutes long, with the instrumental backing staying pretty much the same throughout. It is deliberately split, with the music isolated in the left channel and the vocals entering through the right. The vocalist in this instance—normally, it’s Lou Reed, who made a belly flop this year in his much-ballyhooed collaboration with Metallica—is John Cale, who was the band’s other notable musical visionary. Cale’s throaty delivery, a straightforward recitation of a short story, sounds almost gothic, due to the morbid nature of the tale coupled with the rarefied conveyance of his Welsh accent. Overall, the duality of "The Gift" plays out on multiple levels: The intellectual approach to noise shrouding the primordial slop of the blues, the literal split between language and music, and the polished performance of what’s basically a B-movie.

As it is likely obvious by now, I’m being evasive with regard to the narrative. There’s a surprise ending here, and the only way for the song to achieve its effect is to listen to it. And thanks to the Internet, you can, right here. Peel slowly and see:

Read more from Gift Week:

The 2011 Holiday Gift Guide

"Who wants to own Alot?" by Julia Thiel

"Shameless Joe," by Kate Schmidt

"When picking out gifts, don't do what Mo did," by Mick Dumke

"I'm that drip from the Bleader," by Michael Miner

"In Print: Chicago's Classic Restaurants: Past, Present and Future," by Mike Sula

"What will they think of next? Wood ties, of course," by Kevin Warwick

"Go right to the front of the line, you're special," by Kevin Warwick

"Mayor Emanuel gives Sara Lee a big, wet, and sloppy $6.5 million kiss," by Ben Joravsky

"Unquenchable," by Kate Schmidt

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