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Class ?

Main Category: Mope Rock
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Nico fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Nico fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating = 11

Icy and beautiful indeed - can we call this 'gorgeous goth'?

Best song: THESE DAYS

Track listing: 1) The Fairest Of The Seasons; 2) These Days; 3) Little Sister; 4) Winter Song; 5) It Was A Pleasure Then; 6) Chelsea Girls; 7) I'll Keep It With Mine; 8) Somewhere There's A Feather; 9) Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams; 10) Eulogy To Lenny Bruce.

Before starting off this particular review, let me set up a filter. Number one: do NOT buy this album, do NOT read this review without first having heard The Velvet Underground & Nico. Number two: do NOT even think of buying this album, do NOT even try reading this review if you have an inborn allergy towards Nico's voice and general stylistics with no chance of a cure. To be quite frank, I don't have even the least idea of why Nico is the most universally despised female performer in rock, perhaps only sharing the first place with Yoko Ono on occasion, but I already expressed my wonders, doubts, and what few reasonable arguments I have in support of the poor girl, in the VU & Nico review, so I'm not going to repeat myself.

That warning being made, this album absolutely rules, at least, for the major part of its forty-six minutes. It didn't even have to grow on me - I fell in passionate love with it right away. Since it was recorded in mid-1967, just on the brink of Nico's parting with the Velvets (I'm not even sure if it was recorded after they went their own ways), the style is much similar to the one used on VU & Nico, and both Reed and Cale took part in the recording sessions, the first one contributing guitar and the second one throwing in some orchestration and 'psychedelic violins'. Moe Tucker isn't present, because there are actually no drums on the whole album at all: it's all just folkish acoustic strumming with a few 'modern classical' minimalistic arrangements. Because of that, the songs might seem slightly monotonous, but not more so than on your average folk album.

The actual songwriting is more or less equally split in between Cale, Reed, and, of all things, Jackson Browne; amazingly, Browne's three contributions to the record are all pleasant, emotional and highly memorable. Nico herself definitely isn't a songwriter, and her only songwriting credit on here is the only crying disaster on the album: the eight-minute dissonant horror of 'It Was A Pleasure Then'. This 'song' looks completely out of place on the album, because in general, everything on here is melodic, smooth and pleasant to the ear. When 'Pleasure' suddenly comes on in the middle of the show, it's like a bucket of cold water: slow discordant mantraic chanting over a barrage of violin feedback and ugly guitar noises. It's far worse than even the worst VU excesses, because it's a track that is intentionally ugly, and ugly in the ugliest sense of the word: using passages that are plain anti-musical. The track actually cost the album an entire rating point - please, do me a favour and program it out as soon as you get the album.

Everything else is at the least beautiful and atmospheric, and at best gorgeous beyond words. Reed and Cale do a great job at providing some of the most suitable instrumentation for Nico's voice, and often come close to matching the "icy beauty" of such VU highlights as 'Femme Fatale' or 'I'll Be Your Mirror'. An obvious highlight, for instance, is 'Chelsea Girls', a song dealing with the hardship and toil of girls in a public house - hardly a surprising lyrical matter for Reed - which goes on for seven minutes while you hardly ever notice it (for contrast, every one of the eight minutes of 'It Was A Pleasure Then' seems to last longer than Roosevelt's four terms to me). The flute and orchestration create a sad, melancholic mood, and the wonderful 'here they come now, see them run now, here they come now - Chelsea girls' refrain really makes one feel pity for said girls. While we're at it, I'd like to notice that this was one element sorely lacking on the Velvets' debut album: they sang so freely and with gusto about "unspoken" topics, but there was never really any true emotional power in Reed's description of those topics, rather a peculiar delight and kinky delectation. A song like 'Chelsea Girls' would have made a great addition to VU & Nico, yet for some reason Reed and Morrison (the authors) preferred to donate it to Nico's solo album. Oh well, perhaps they didn't want to sissy up their image?

Other highlights include Browne's 'The Fairest Of The Seasons', a beautiful ballad that's as stately and majestic as could be, not to mention a terrific vocal melody, and Browne's 'These Days', a quirky little folk ditty that sounds rather humble as compared to the "anthems" on here, but that's just the song's charm: it's homely, cozy, and very introspective. And, of course, when you set a humble introspective song like that to the vocal cords of a German singerine, thus combining an inborn "goth grandeur" with typical Anglo-Saxon "debasedness", the contrast and interaction of the two moods is amazing; you'll hardly hear anything like that on any other record in existence. Say, perhaps you should buy this album after all... even if you hate Nico's voice?

I won't be naming the other songs (okay, just two - there's a very nice cover of Dylan's 'I'll Keep It With Mine' here, too, and she also gets a take on Tim Hardin's 'Eulogy To Lenny Bruce'; apparently, Nico was a big Lenny Bruce fan), but suffice it to say that while they don't exactly match the power and emotional force of the ones I already listed, none of them are bad, and that wonderful "German goth vs. American folk" atmosphere is omnipresent. Apart from the murky horror of 'It Was A Pleasure', then, and the unnecessary Nico-mystifying liner notes by Pat Patterson, this is a true minor miracle of a record, even if it's hardly "rock music" or "folk music" in any traditional sense. Oh, and, by the way, it also seems to be the most accessible of all Nico albums (at least, all the good and respected ones), so it also looks like a good way to start with the gal. That is, if you don't have any biases towards German voices.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 10

I kinda dig the Goth atmosphere, but the lack of even relative diversity brings it down real quickly.


Track listing: 1) Janitor Of Lunacy; 2) The Falconer; 3) My Only Child; 4) Le Petit Chevalier; 5) Abschied; 6) Afraid; 7) Mutterlein; 8) All That Is My Own.

If you thought Can were spooky, take a listen to this. Yeah, this is still Nico singing, but this sounds years away from Chelsea Girl. Maybe her debut album was stern and depressing, but compared to Desertshore it's more cheerful than Sha Na Na. This record is not just dark: it's chilling and diabolic, Goth music taken to the extreme, and I can hardly imagine a situation in one's life when putting on Desertshore would help one solve any personal problems. Well, sometimes it helps to put on something gloomy and depressing - for instance, when you're let down by the world and need someone or something to identify with - but Desertshore is a record whose practical use is undeniably limited to suicidal cases.

Now that I have probably intrigued you with such a gruesome intro, let me tell you that the record is not even all that good - Nico would go on to more convincing things in a few years. The material can hardly be called "songs", more like medieval chanting, all of it dirge-style and in a minor key, with just one exception: the silly one-minute throwaway 'Le Petit Chevalier', sung by some frightened and shy kid in French to a harpsichord background. I don't know who the kid is, but sure as hell ain't Nico herself. It hardly fits in with the rest anyway, but at least it provides a minute's relaxation in between the pounding gloom of the other tunes.

The instrumentation is also quite suitable: the most prominent instrument is an out of tune harmonium, played by Nico herself; it is probably supposed to imitate a church organ, although I don't understand why they couldn't have found a real church organ itself. All the other instruments are provided by John Cale (quite predictably, Nico's most trusty partner throughout the years), which includes pianos, harpsichords, occasional backing vocals and - you guessed it - dissonant violin screeching. Thankfully, he only abuses the poor string instrument on a couple of tracks, otherwise sticking to keyboards.

Now I don't really have anything against such an approach in particular; I am able to appreciate goth music if it's delivered with taste and intelligence, and this one certainly is. Nico's lyrics (by the way, she wrote everything on the album herself - which explains the lack of melodies, for one) are tolerable and quite in the German tradition without relying too heavily on cliches; she even contributes two tracks in German, said to be taken from the soundtrack to some obscure movie. And her minimalistic approach is also brilliant - you won't find any other record which would manage to recreate the stern atmosphere of death and desperation with just a poorly-played harmonium and singing. But over the course of the album, this approach also wears you down and occasionally bores you, as there are way too few musical ideas to keep it up with the atmosphere.

This is probably why I regard the opening track, 'Janitor Of Lunacy', with just the above-described minimalistic approach (harmonium/vocals arrangement), as the best number on the record. Just because it's the first, and so the best par excellence. I also dig the lyrics: 'Janitor of lunacy/Paralyze my infancy/Petrify the empty cradle/Bring hope to them and me'. I mean, the first three lines are all right, but how can one be expected to bring hope by paralyzing and petrifying? Sounds like a little tongue-in-cheek black humour here.

Out of the other songs, I'm particularly fond of 'Afraid', whose gentle piano melody also relieves the tension a little bit; it's just a little loving ballad, with a little loving violin line (not dissonant at all) and Nico's vocals finally showing some tenderness after all the sterile winterish Viking lady deliveries. But the album closer, 'All That Is My Own', is also a highlight - perhaps the most depressing and 'heavy' number on the record after 'Janitor Of Lunacy'. Its sound is rather delicately woven from several different parts - harmonium, unobtrusive trumpet notes, thumping faraway percussion, rhythmic harpsichord ringing and above all, Cale's 'floating violins' with a sound very akin to the one used on 'Venus In Furs', while Nico sings a simplistic melody that's even more terrifying that way and alternates it with echo-laden pieces of mystic declamation (including the 'meet me on the desert shore' line, from where the album title is taken).

Still, all the praises are relative - the record is highly consistent in its overall mood, and the individual songs begin to stand out only after repeated listenings, as is the real charm and attraction of the album, actually. The importance of Cale to the creation of this music is hard to overestimate, either: without his collaboration, Nico would just be something like a second-rate German Leonard Cohen - that is, an expressive poet whose only relation to "music" is in that he/she is trying to sing the verses instead of reciting them and needs some rudimentary musical background for that purpose. But Cale brings in the pianos and violins and makes this a true musical experience, for which I am grateful. In the end. Yet it is obvious that this was one of the earliest experiments in the goth genre, and over the years it's become somewhat dated; I can only imagine with what sincere dread did people perceive this music back in 1971. Today it is obvious that in stressing the atmosphere, they forgot all about the essence, or, more exactly, didn't have the time or wish to find enough essence.

Yet, on still another hand, the record is short - and it could have been a double album, why not? - and it's not all that hard to sit through. Just don't make the mistake of listening to it on the day your girlfriend leaves you with another, because it is said to cultivate suicidal tendencies in the organism. Yeah, I know I'm kidding, but "in every joke resides a part of the truth", now do you not agree?



Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 12

A terrific Goth piece of work, with enough diversity and atmosphere this time - well, Eno is contributing, after all.


Track listing: 1) It Has Not Taken Long; 2) Secret Side; 3) You Forgot To Answer; 4) Innocent And Vain; 5) Valley Of The Kings; 6) We've Got The Gold; 7) The End; 8) Das Lied Der Deutschen.

Nico's masterpiece - and I reiterate that you hear this from the mouth of a person who hates goth as a genre. But I mostly hate it because there are so many cheap imitators who think they're doing something truly scary and atmospheric when in fact it's just second-rate rubbish along the lines of those monster movies that Frank Zappa used to ridiculize in songs like 'Cheapnis'. I bet you anything he wouldn't dare ridiculize Nico, though.

Why is The End better than her previous efforts? After all, it's just the same atmospheric sonic experience laden with Nico's "Storm Trooper vocals" (Brian Burks' sarcastic epithet) with a serious lack of melodies; not a single tune on here is catchy in any sense of the word, because there's nothing to catch. But it's all right: this is a record that screams "We Go For Atmosphere", and as far as purely atmospheric records go, this beats out the majority of Pink Floyd's works for sure.

The main difference is that the album is not so underproduced as its predecessors. Nico still plays her harmonium, and Cale still acts as her spiritual and technical guru, but he throws in tons more instrumentation than before, experimenting with all kinds of weird percussion and bringing in a whole battery of keyboards. Even more, they have drafted in both Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, and the two provide some invaluable services: Eno, as usually, contributes the gloomy synthesizer background and otherworldly noises such as Cale could only dream of, while Manzanera occasionally delivers scorching guitar parts that for a short while seem somewhat out of place... but only for a while. They do add a lot to the sound.

Yet another factor is the lyrics - Nico seems keen on making everything sound morose to the extreme and adds extreme bleakiness and even cruelty to the lyrics that were previously just, well, mystical. The songs abound with images of death and destruction, violation, rape and perversion, yet every word is thought out so carefully that it never strikes you as banal. Here are some lines from 'Secret Side', for instance: 'Without a guide, without a hand/Unwed virgins in the land/Tied up on the sand/When there come ships into their land/They'll be awaiting reverence/At their children's hands/Are you not loyal to your pride?/Are you not on the secret side?/It's not a crime, a game to you,/Do you not understand?' Rumor has it that Nico was once raped by an American G.I. (although the rumour was probably false, spread by Nico herself as she liked to do quite often), and this is somehow reflected in the song. Er, well, whatever. But it does sound interesting, and within the actual song it really sends icy chills down your spine.

'It Has Not Taken Long' opens the album with a winterish synthesizer background and some 'glockenspiel percussion' from Cale, while Nico recites the dreadful lyrics (seem to be about raping again, but I'm not too sure this time) as some powerful wicked sorceress of old; 'Janitor Of Lunacy', as good an opener as it was on Desertshore, pales before the desperation and grim ominous mood of this song. 'Secret Side' carries us a little bit towards the light due to Eno's sparkling synth loops that lift up the veil of depression and terror set by Nico with her 'unwed virgins' stories; but the terror never really passes away completely, not even in the 'lightest' number - the rather simple piano ballad 'You Forgot To Answer'. It's a love song, but a song of lost/unshared love - and even so, it sounds like a reworked variation on an excerpt from Bach's 'Passions', so any true emotionality that may be contained therein is gruesomely let through the filter of the 'stone cold German heart' and crushes the listener rather than moves him. Is this a good or a bad thing? You decide...

Eno fully acquires the reins on 'Innocent And Vain', with an apocalyptic swirl of evil synth noises both opening and closing this harmonium-led track that, as some people suggest, deals with Nico's imaginary raper ('my favourite gladiator'), but is hardly truly decipherable in the lyrics division. The synth noises, though, have to be heard to be believed - not even during his stay in Roxy Music, when Eno used to employ as much ugly noises and demonic bleeps as possible, did he actually manage to do so much damage to the instrument.

The real surprises, however, come in near the album's end - come in with 'The End', actually, as the title track is indeed a cover of the Doors' epic, and only then do you start to realise that the album was actually planned to revolve around this inventive reworking. I still can't decide if I like Nico's version or not, as it's about a trillion times less musical than the Doors' own, but one thing's for sure: nobody in the whole wide world could be more appropriate for covering the number than Nico, in fact, over the course of its nine minutes I sometimes catch myself thinking that the song was originally intended for her. After singing about death and mystical subjects for so long, here's her chance on identifying herself with Jim, and she pulls it off. The 'backing band' doesn't even wonder about playing, they just sit around making 'dark noises' (only in the last part they actually start to play something real dissonant with Manzanera as lead player), but it doesn't matter - Nico's voice is what makes the number which now concentrates on death and decay subjects rather than Oedipus' complex, because the sacred line 'mother I want to fuck you' is omitted in favour of some hoarse vocal noises... yeah, probably corresponding to these very suspension points in the graphic version.

And the record closes with Nico's rendition of the 'Deutschland Deutschland ueber alles" Nazi anthem - a rather silly move in retrospect, because there was really no need to abuse concrete Germanic symbolism on this album, but a move that's completely forgivable: what a better way to end the album by deep-shocking the audience than to turn in this leaden, solemn and eerie performance? It works as a clever conceptual detail, and makes a cute little postscriptum to the album's striking perversity and "offensiveness", even if I'm not enchanted by it as I am by most of the other songs. Yeah, this is nothing but atmosphere, but it's excellent, "distilled" atmosphere, and The End gotta rank there along with some of the greatest "proto-ambient" material by such a band as Can and such a sound wiz as Eno (in fact, I don't really know anything else that could compare). Not only that, it's "proto-goth", and in that way was obviously a huge influence on everybody from said Eno to The Cure and later on; further proof to the fact that almost every genre and sub-genre of the Eighties/Nineties can be traced back to the golden period of 1966-75. If you're a tolerant kind of dude, then check it out, it's definitely worth your time and money.



Year Of Release: 1981
Overall rating = 11

Goth meets New Wave in a monotonous, yet fascinating way.

Best song: sheez, they're all one.

Track listing: 1) Genghis Khan; 2) Purple Lips; 3) One More Chance; 4) Henry Hudson; 5) Waiting For The Man; 6) Sixty Forty; 7) The Sphinx; 8) Orly Flight; 9) Heroes.

Gee, I seem to have really taken a liking to the gal. Who knows, maybe tomorrow you'll see me wearing black leather? Ooohh God...

In any case, after The End Nico seems to have taken a long break - maybe she was too proud and didn't want to re-write the same album for the umptenth time, or maybe it was just a bad case of heroin addiction. Whatever. She's been so effectively mystifying people throughout her career that you can't believe anything you hear about the lass, even if it seems trustworthy. The fact is, in the early Eighties Nico returned to songwriting and recording, and while this period is usually thought of as feeble and uninspired by the fans, I don't share that opinion. It's just different.

The basic style hasn't changed all that much: on Drama Of Exile, Nico is still the Nico of old, with her "Leaden Ice" Deutschevoice, the usual morbid and morose lyrics and the usual creepy gloomy Goth atmosphere. Even the two covers - David Bowie's 'Heroes' and Lou Reed's 'Waiting For The Man' (I bet she wanted so much to sing the latter on Velvet Underground & Nico that she couldn't stand the temptation to finally re-record it on her own) - are stripped of their atmosphere (romantic in the case of the former, playful in the case of the latter) and transformed into the same ominous grey slabs.

The big difference are the arrangements. Instead of messing around with old pals like Cale and Eno, Nico has assembled an all-new backing band: Mahammad Hadi on guitars, Philippe Quilichini on bass (he also produced the record), Steve Cordona on drums, Davey Payne on sax and Andy Clarke on keyboards. Now I have never ever heard of these guys before, and, frankly, I don't often give out the names of session musicians - too lazy to do that - but in this case, I made an exception because the backing band is absolutely amazing; frankly, I was shocked at how good these guys sounded when put together. If anything, they strongly remind me of contemporary King Crimson: same intriguing, pseudo-academic approach to sonic textures, with jerky, paranoid rhythms and interlocking guitar and keyboard riffs, loads of energy and drive and not a single track where they'd be abusing modern technologies. I mean, you can tell that this stuff was recorded in the Eighties, but it sounds like good Eighties music, the kind of stuff that the radio wasn't too hot about at the time.

Thus, I think that even those who view Nico's voice as some kind of a cross between a dying Marlene Dietrich and a Kraftwerk-style robot and experience heart attacks each time it comes on, will still have to appreciate the actual songs. The main flaw, of course, is lack of diversity: after a while, all the songs really start to sound the same, and the vocal melodies are not all that hummable. But taken on its own, each number has something to offer. The very first number, 'Genghis Khan', kicks in with such tremendous force and drive that I knew from the beginning - this is going to be a fun ride. The way the guitar riff weaves its way around the bouncy organ pattern is incredibly atmospheric and creative, and Nico's mantraic chanting just keeps coming in and going out on par with more gloomy, synth-treated guitar effects and ominous sax solos. Total chaos, but total control over chaos, and one of the best Goth/New Wave mixtures I've heard. Fans of the Cure can't go wrong with this stuff - heck, this might even be better than the Cure!

Due to the similarity of the tunes, I wouldn't know if there are any particular highlights, though. I'd say most of the tracks (except for the covers) fall in two distinct categories: the Faster ones and the Slower ones. The Faster ones, like 'Genghis Khan', 'One More Chance', and 'Henry Hudson', are not meant to totally depress and humiliate you; rather, they're just eyebrow-raising and thought-provoking, not to mention catchy: you'll spend ages trying to get the keyboard riff of 'Henry Hudson' out of your head. Repetitive, for sure, but in an adequate moody way.

The Slower ones, on the contrary, are absolutely dreary - I would be afraid to play 'Purple Lips' alone in the dark, with its stunning grumbling metallic riffs and Nico's vocal melody gradually ascending to a peak before crashing and splitting into a million pieces in tremendous climaxes. And stuff like 'Sixty Forty', while not all that spooky, is still hypnotizing - Eno influences raise their head on that one. About the only track that's hard for me to stomach is 'Orly Flight', mainly because it betrays the band's usual approach - no well-established rhythmic patterns on the song, and this immediately lowers its standing price.

Plus, I actually think that the two covers are also weak. 'Waiting For The Man' really doesn't work with Nico on vocals; as I said, it's a very playful song, with lots of irony and sarcasm in it, and Nico's vocals don't suit it one bit (although there's a tremendous organ solo - absolutely killer, somebody please pat Andy Clarke on the back for me). And 'Heroes'... well, the funniest thing about 'Heroes' is that Nico actually does not change the lyrics, singing 'I will be king, and you will be queen'. I mean, looking at Nico you could suspect her of assuming a she-male attitude, but why extol it so blatantly? But it's still fun.

In any case, I don't at all understand why this is so often taken as a particularly weak spot in Nico's career. The songs are well-written and amazingly performed, what else do you want? Ah well, I suppose Goth fans don't often get used to New Wave arrangements. But I, for one, think that the hybrid works pretty fine, and if only this record hadn't been out of print in the US, I suppose most of my readers would have agreed with me on that one. For once!!!


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