The Velvet Underground & Nico is an anomaly: a group project where everyone pulled their weight. John Cale’s work with the electric viola gives the album a rough and unique synthetic sound, supported by strong instrumentals from Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Lou Reed’s vocal delivery is distinctive and impactful as he fearlessly tackles taboo subject matter in his lyrics. Guest collaborator Nico offers a vocal style that refreshingly contrasts Reed’s on several of the album’s warmer songs. And the hands-off production style of legendary artist Andy Warhol was just what each of the musicians needed to make the most out of their time together in the studio. (Naturally, Warhol also provided the album’s cover artwork, the iconic peelable banana sticker).
I’ll Be Your Mirror, a tribute to The Velvet Underground’s classic debut album, is in some ways an even more ambitious collaboration: 15 artists, many of whom weren’t even alive when the 1967 album was released, joining together to recreate the album track-for-track. There’s little room to improve upon the original record, but there isn’t much room to play it safe, either.
While some tracks on I’ll Be Your Mirror are less ambitious than others, the album as a whole feels very fresh and original while remaining faithful to the source material. The claustrophobic, New York City recording studio sound of the original album is gone in favor of a wider, more modern sound. Even though each track is infused with elements of each contributing artist, there is a remarkable consistency in sound across the whole album.
I’ll Be Your Mirror features many legends of alternative music influenced by The Velvet Underground, the first being former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe on the opening track, “Sunday Morning.” The cover retains the original song’s warm feeling and also gives Stipe a chance to shine. The mellow strings in the background and pleasant vocal harmonies make “Sunday Morning” feel like a grown-up chamber pop version of the cheery R.E.M. hit “Shiny Happy People.” It’s also a great tribute to Lou Reed — intentionally or not, the song uses a very similar bass line to Reed’s 1974 hit “Walk On The Wild Side” in a manner that feels sincere and nostalgic.
In general, I’ll Be Your Mirror is at its best when, like on “Sunday Morning,” it diverges from the original album musically but remains faithful to the original’s mood. On “Run Run Run,” Kurt Vile perfectly captures Lou Reed’s vocal style and presents the high-energy sound of the original track with modern production. Despite its seven-minute length and dense mix that often buries the melodic guitar lines, the track is very enjoyable and catchy.
Other tracks also capture the high-octane moments of the original album quite well. “There She Goes Again” features a gritty and engaging vocal performance by King Princess capped off by a chaotic, accelerating instrumental outro. Likewise, the album’s closing track, “European Son,” runs with the over-the-top sound of the original track, led by blistering feedback-driven guitar solos by Matt Sweeney and a timeless wailing vocal performance by punk rock legend and Ann Arbor-native Iggy Pop.
While the album often succeeds with a by-the-book approach, the album’s most inventive tracks are some of its most effective. “Venus in Furs” by Andrew Bird and Lucius is a standout track on the album, employing stripped-down instrumentation of plucked and bowed strings alongside powerful vocal harmonies and technically demanding solos. The song has a unique sound that distinguishes itself from the original song and complements the dark lyrics. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett is even more imaginative and just as fascinating, with a jazzy piano-centered instrumental and a mix of spoken word and digitally-harmonized vocals by St. Vincent.
Just as The Velvet Underground explored the boundaries of rock music on their debut album, I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico delves into a wide range of interpretations of The Velvet Underground & Nico from a diverse set of artists in a surprisingly cohesive project. While some tracks are more memorable than others, each of the album’s 15 credited artists brings something unique to the album. Be it the ascendant King Princess and Fontaines D.C. or timeless greats like Michael Stipe and Iggy Pop, all contributors demonstrate a sincere appreciation for the original work.
I’ll Be Your Mirror is a great tribute to The Velvet Underground, but the artists that put this project together are themselves the band’s lasting legacy.
Daily Arts Contributor Jack Moeser can be reached at email@example.com