Apr 192024

The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou ReedLou Reed was quite the fella. Initially a proto-Brill Building popsmith for Pickwick Records, he morphed into a leather and shades VU biker and glam-rock trans offender. And FX metal feedback noisenik, and elder statesman socio-political commentator, before closing his recording career with a soundtrack for meditation and mindfulness. Indeed, just about anything and everything, for nearly five decades, all while being a notoriously spiky literary curmudgeon, bane of any journalist trying to capture his essence. It took music, not words, to do that, and with The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou Reed, it’s officially been done.

Light In The Attic have pulled no punches in this extravagant release, likewise taking no prisoners in the all-star cast present. Some fairly obvious contenders are here, along with a fair few surprises and more, seldom missing any opportunity to expand into near cliche; some of the artist/song matches are a positive publicist’s delight. Pulled together by Bill Bentley, a music industry bigwig with a track record in this sort of thing, and a longterm associate of Reed, the aim was to look at all periods of his songwriting. (Bentley was also behind similarly high profile tributes to Roky Erickson, Skip Spence and Doug Sahm.) Bentley also provides an affectionate portrait to his (eventual) friend, in a heartfelt essay, well worth the read.

The much-trumpeted Keith Richards take on “Waiting for the Man” opens The Power of the Heart proceedings. Most of the press around this earlier-released single concentrated on Keith the myth rather than Keith the artist, generally drawing also his age into often barbed opinions. I think it’s great, the knowingly down at heel stoner persona, aka Keith the myth, the perfect foil for the lyric, while the shabby shell of a voice, aka Keith the artist, serves as an inspired vessel for carrying it. It’s allied to a scuzzy background bar-band accompaniment, bringing the song from the stage door to the back alley and back again. All with that insouciant Keef grin, no doubt. He plays all guitar parts and piano, with Ivan Neville on additional Wurlitzer and Steve Jordan on drums.

Angel Olsen and real-life partner Maxim Ludwig sound cleverly as if they have the same backing band for “I Can’t Stand It.” They don’t, but the fuzzy and murky mix adds to the paranoia. Ludwig takes the verses, Olsen chiming in for the chorus, together a never more 60’s/70’s rock’n’roll harmony. From Reed’s solo debut, the VU flavor lingers large, and the duo give due credit. But the first surprise comes with the choice as to whom would be gifted Reed’s best-known song, at least amongst civilians. And who to cover “Perfect Day” may not always be answered by the name Rufus Wainwright. An inspired choice, he imbues it with a gloriously frail and wobbly interpretation, stripped a long way back, just guitars and voice. Or voices, as he being joined by Madison Cunningham for the chorus. With more foreboding than in the celebratory original, his stoned drawl is a delight.

“I’m So Free” is another song from Transformer, and one that is a little steeped in its time, being even a little dated and kitschy, by current standards. So much so, that when Joan Jett kicks it into her more ageless rock and roll template and gives it back the balls it eschewed the first time around, both she and the song end up sounding like an early Blondie demo. The jagged and harsh funk of “Sally Can’t Dance” then gets a warmer and more organic rendition, courtesy Bobby Rush. A full decade older even than Keith Richards, his experience shows, the song seeming much kinder than in the original, much as memories of the then somewhat scary Reed of 1974 have mellowed with time.

Given Rickie Lee Jones has always epitomized the wild side, her image suggesting walks there well known, like Richards, she is almost too obvious a choice to cover the “hit.” But her “Walk on the Wild Side” is a joy, she applying little more than RLJ max to the song. No bass, it is N’Awlins piano that serenades her slurred near whisper. Wrong city? Says who, as sirens soar distantly in the background, and vibraphone picks up some extra atmosphere, rolled processional drums later still. It’s lazy in the way lazy is gooood. And as for the colored girls, well, if they’re there, they’re saying nothing. But I think they are. It’s a good interpretation.

The Afghan Whigs are a shoo-in to interpret Reed, it only a shame that sometime-accomplice Whig, Mark Lanegan, is no longer present to give his own reality check to Reed’s terroir. Having said, Greg Dulli and John Curley reveal the love song buried within the raw original, piano and organ giving a soulful thrust to the impassioned delivery of the vocals. One of the greater transitions here, it is a highpoint. As is Mary Gauthier’s slow country blues shuffle through “Coney Island Baby,” a song I have never quite got in past incarnations. In truth, the arrangement isn’t so different from Reed’s, it just sounds less stagey, that streak of Broadway never that far from Reed’s exterior armor. Which is more than enough to sell it to me.

Lucinda Williams picks up on a similar path to follow “Legendary Hearts,” her cracked anguish drawing out all the pathos of the lines given her, the “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo” couplet especially poignant. Reese Wynan’s swirling organ is incendiary, the whole marvelous, another highpoint, confirming just how well Lu gives good cover.

The neo-rockabilly of “New Sensations” gets an almost electro feel from Automatic. Probably unsurprisingly, as that’s what this all-female three-piece, broadly, are; their sound is based around synthesizer, with rudimentarily effective bass and drums. Their vocals offer a smoother and more dispassionate take than Reed’s snarl. Setting immediately a different stage, “Magician” then starts with clipped guitar and bass, the surprise coming as the realization hits as to who is singing. But if you think the shared ground between Lou Reed and Rosanne Cash might be small and spare, actually, no: “Lou seemed fearless to me,” she says, “like he’d rather die than be a people-pleaser. I took inspiration from that.” The song, from 1992’s Magic and Loss, is one Reed’s most attractive melodies, a melancholic musing on life and death, if not in that order. Cash can’t help but enhance that attractiveness.

That’s the end of the vinyl edition, penciled in for the coming Record Store Day. But, for the now-released CD version, as he did with the Rocky Erickson album, Bentley enrolls his son, Brogan, for what would otherwise be the title track. Freely confessing it my personal favorite Reed song, if through Peter Gabriel’s masterful cover version from his Scratch My Back album, I’d love to say it a highlight here, however evocatively it starts. Bentley’s vocal is just too beige to carry it off, and it was a shrewd move to exclude it the possibly more prestige edition. Nepotism aside, I’d have left the set as it was.

Overall, that last song apart, The Power of the Heart is a very good and a worthwhile disc. I get that some folk struggle with Lou Reed and his minimalist approach to vocal delivery; sometimes I do. But, for for both Reed aficionados and the Reed-averse, this is as good an entry, or primer, into the undoubted enigma he was, and the varied stages he trod. A keeper.

The Power of the Heart Tracklisting:
  1. Keith Richards – I’m Waiting for the Man 
  2. Maxim Ludwig & Angel Olsen – I Can’t Stand It
  3. Rufus Wainwright – Perfect Day
  4. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – I’m So Free
  5. Bobby Rush – Sally Can’t Dance
  6. Rickie Lee Jones – Walk on the Wild Side
  7. The Afghan Whigs – I Love You, Suzanne
  8. Mary Gauthier – Coney Island Baby
  9. Lucinda Williams – Legendary Hearts
  10. Automatic – New Sensations
  11. Rosanne Cash – Magician
  12. Brogan Bentley – The Power of the Heart (Bonus track CD/Digital Only)
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