The Corona Underground started as a way for some Welsh musicians to kill some lockdown time, but grew into something much bigger. Gary Raymond explores the riches of a 32-track tribute to The Velvet Underground.
Nobody has any right to make The Velvet Underground sound quite as chirpy as The Hepburns do on their cover of “What Goes On”. It opens this Welsh homage to the great New York contrarians, and brings with it a summer-sun antagonism that one suspects Lou Reed et al. may have actually approved. The key to a successful tribute album is not to copy the songs of the subject, but it is to extract an essence, to make the familiar seem fresh; it’s supposed to make you look at the sculpture from a different angle. So, now, is “What Goes On” a sunny anthem? It was always one of the Velvet’s most straight-faced and assertive of tracks. “Baby be good, do what you should, you know it will work alright.” When not taking the piss, it’s perhaps the most positive lyric Lou Reed ever penned.
So, we’re in, and The Hepburns give us a good start to a concept album that itself catches you off guard for a second, makes you double-take. The Corona Underground was created by a bunch of Welsh musician friends who wanted to kill some lockdown time, but also raise some awareness for some good causes, notably Tarian Cymru and Race Council Cymru. It is the brainchild of graphic designer Jon Mlynarski, who has a long CV of album covers for Welsh artists, and the depth of his rollerdeck is on display here. Thirty-two tracks by Thirty artists, some more familiar than others. Adwaith, Silent Forum, Spencer Segelov, Los Blancos, and Simon Love rub leather-jacketed shoulders with less familiar names such as Mountain Machine, Bete Pest, and Tacsidermi (a side-project the spin from Adwaith’s Gwenllian).
The Corona Underground, then, is a place for these artists to experiment and let loose, to rummage around inside the Velvet’s body of work and find themselves. As with most projects like this, (ie. tribute albums), the final result is bloated but always interesting. What is going to be done with “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, with “Venus in Furs”, with “I’m Waiting for the Man”? Also, as is common with projects like this, the real gems are in the “lesser” songs. Those megaliths in the canon of American rock music that I just mentioned all end up being somewhat underwhelming (if you’re going to strip “All Tomorrow’s Parties” of John Cale’s thundering propulsive piano, what are we even doing here?), but there is an abundance of sparkle in the grooves between them.
The Hepburns’ “What Goes On”, despite all reservations, is a joy, and a great start. Adwaith’s “Femme Fatale” is a smart take. Part of that trick of tapping into the work, finding its essence, is to then have it reflect something of your own musical identity. Adwaith swagger and sway through their version, giving it that bright West Coast edge that the Velvet’s monochrome New York-ness almost obliterates from the original. Los Blancos doing “Lisa Says” gets the entire marriage of attitudes of band and song exactly right. Silent Forum seem to have had a ball remotely recording “The Murder Mystery” with all the glory of its layered chaos. Soundhog recreating the psychedelic spoken word of John Cale’s “The Gift” from the White Light/White Heat (1968) album with David Harper is a bold choice that proves a rewarding journey.
The closer of the two volumes, however, is something that sticks beyond the loose, chummy frivolity of a venture like this. Former Boo Radley Martin Carr’s searching deconstruction of “White Light/White Heat”, incorporating samples of Lou Reed interviews and calls to action from Black Lives Matter protests, manages to not only encapsulate the importance of the two foundations this project is helping to raise awareness for, but also brings attention to the intrinsic political drive of The Velvet Underground. It reminds us why we’re here, in terms of listening to this album, but also in a broader sense. It reminds us The Velvet Underground were visionaries, and their vision of America, and of music, is with us today. What VU kicked back against in the 1960s is still in need of a kicking today. The music of America’s original punk art garage rock band is seemingly relevant to the turmoil of today. Carr finds the essence of the music, brings an essence of himself, and addresses issues to which both essences are fundamentally attuned. It is as sharp an artistic statement on what’s going on right now as you’re likely to hear.
Peaks and troughs, that’s the landscape of any tribute album; all you can ask for is that the low points are interesting enough, and for a few high points that really resonate. The two volumes of The Corona Underground is as successful as any tribute compilation that I can think of. It is a shame, though, that nobody gave “Sister Ray” a go.
The Corona Underground volumes 1 & 2 are available for free on Bandcamp.