The aptly titled Lou, Joseph Arthur’s heartfelt homage to the late Lou Reedis more than a mere tribute alone. After all, Arthur’s own dour, dark and distinctive persona appears to directly emulate his friend Reed’s austere approach. It’s appropriate then that these songs, drawn from Reed’s extensive canon — both solo and as part of the Velvet Underground — are presented in stripped down settings consisting solely of piano and/or guitar, allowing a personal perspective that makes them all the more revealing.
In the revealing liner notes, Arthur describes how he struggled to achieve those ends, but in listening to these surprisingly tender reads of “Walk on the Wild Side,” “NYC Man” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” sadness and sentiment moot much of the cynicism. Even Reed’s most infamous anthem, the daunting “Heroin,” finds its rush of adrenalin teetering between immortality and insanity. Nevertheless, Arthur’s attempt to — in his words — “bring out something unheard before” in order to reveal new perspectives succeeds admirably.
Ultimately, Lou emerges as a humble bow to both the man and the music.
Joseph Arthur was well aware of the expectations and potential pitfalls of recording a Lou Reed tribute album. It wasn't even his idea. When it was pitched to him by Vanguard A&R man Bill Bentley in November 2013, mere weeks after Reed's death, he only very reluctantly agreed to consider the idea.
Reed had befriended the New York-based Arthur in the mid-'90s just as his career was beginning to blossom with release of his 1997 debut on Peter Gabriel's Real World label (Reed even took him out for ice cream after signing to celebrate the feat).
Sixteen years and ten albums later, a tour-hardened veteran Arthur returned home after weeks on the road to attend his friend's final tribute show at the Apollo Theater and decided to try out a few songs at his home studio using only acoustic guitar and piano. Taking a simplistic approach to Reed's songs was the only way to make this album work. Reed's best music was subtle in that way with phrases and arrangements boiled down to their minimalist essence. He often made huge statements with his understatement and unwavering attitude. Bravely taking on some of the best-known cuts from Reed's canon, Arthur strips songs like "Heroin," "Satellite of Love," and even "Walk on the Wild Side" down, interpreting them honestly and organically with his expressive, embattled voice.
There is obvious respect and reverence for the material and for Reed's style, but Arthur is also his own artist with a great body of work and years of touring to his credit. He manages to get lost in these familiar songs without becoming too subservient to their original versions or feeling the need to veer too far from them in order to make his statement. His versions of "Sword of Damocles," "Coney Island Baby," and "Dirty Blvd." are all tactfully handled, receiving more of a wistful reinterpretation than a showboating reinvention.
A less experienced artist might not have been so reserved, but the veteran Arthur knows how to treat a song, whether it be his own material or something as iconic as the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says." As a tribute, Lou is deftly made and should please, or at the very least fail to offend, Lou Reed fans. As a Joseph Arthur album, it's a nice comedown from 2013's massive, lushly produced double album The Ballad of Boogie Christ.
It has the organic purity of an acoustic (American Recordings-era) Rick Rubin production, but sonically falls more in line with something like Robyn Hitchcock's Eye, with its rough edges, beautifully rickety harmonies, and homemade charm. It has the shared benefit of coming across as both an honestly intended tribute to an artistic mentor as well as another well-made record in Arthur's impressive catalog.
Sword of Damocles Pale Blue Eyes Dirty Blvd. Speed of Light King of Cleveland Still Life Honey Rose In the Sun The Ballad of Boogie Christ Black Lexus I Used to Know How to Walk on Water Black Flowers Walk on the Wild Side Heroin I Miss the Zoo Out on a Limb Coney Island Baby Saint of Impossible Causes (Don't Go Back to) Rockville Blue Lights in the Rear View Currency of Love
The concert was officially recorded, and available for download on SETFM website.
"Real World wants me to write a note or paragraph about its significance to me but the truth is, I could write a book on it. At least the start of a book, because in many ways the life I’ve lived for going on twenty years started there. I have magical (and I’m not using that word lightly) memories of it. Also some heartbreaking (also not used lightly) ones. The heartbreaking ones are not specifically about Real World as much as just my dreaded experience of the music business. So let’s start with the magical ones, or some of them.
For a start, I met Joe Strummer there. In hindsight, he was like a rock & roll angel. As bad as that line is or sounds, it’s just the truth. His spirit and enthusiasm has stuck with me thru the years. I remember playing him an early version of “Daddy’s on Prozac” and he asked, “Where’s the bass, man?”…“There isn’t any.”… “Make it huge,” he said. “Put bass on it.” Later, he told me I was the real deal and that “there are few real deals, so don’t ever let anyone tell you different.”
That’s advice I haven’t always followed, advice I’m still trying to live up to. This was in the mid-nineties and I was 25 and really green, fresh-off-the-boat green. A nerd. I smoked my first spliff with him there. I didn’t understand the concept of hash sprinkled on tobacco. Where I’m from (America), we smoke pure weed. Take a toke and pass it. He rolled this huge thing that I had no idea what it was and didn’t have the gumption to ask but after he (I thought rudely, at the time) hit it way more than the one time he passed it to me. I smoked it without hesitation, emulating the number of tokes he took and got virtually no buzz from it. It was more of a communal cigarette than the deeply psychedelic smoke excursions we participated in in Ohio. Pure weed is better, but I digress.
The occasion for all this was something called Recording Week, where families from India and African musicians come together with likes of Joe, Peter Gabriel, Karl Wallinger, Iggy Pop. Hell, even Johnny Depp was there with Kate Moss, along with a laundry list of extremely talented producers and engineers– Tchad Blake, Brian Eno, John Leckie and Stephan Hague to name a few. Saying I was way out of my depth is the understatement of the year. Having come from a garbage one-room apartment, which also was a whorehouse rampant with cockroaches, working minimum wage and barely holding onto my sanity, I believe Peter Gabriel saved my life by bringing me there. (Maybe that’s dramatic. Maybe not.)
I remember hanging out on the lawn in the sun right outside the studio, taking it all in and doing my best to act like I belonged there when Peter came up to me and said, “Me and Karl are working on a track upstairs and would like you to help us out on it.”… I said nervously, “Sure, you want me to play bass?” (In my mind, I was a bass player, at that time only having been singing and writing songs for a few short years.) He said, “No, I was thinking you could write lyrics and sing.”… And this in a nutshell explains the magic of Real World and Peter Gabriel for me. He saw something in me before I saw it in myself. If Joe was rock & roll angel, Peter was like a rock & roll father. He more than gave me my start; he gave me my confidence. He believed in me when no one else did and the world he brought me into was in fact real, tho at the time it seemed like it was anything but.
The first producer I worked with at Real World was John Leckie. This was after Recording Week, after everyone had left. I stayed because really that week changed me. I didn’t really belong anywhere else anymore. Secret doors had opened and I found myself born into unbelievable rooms, namely a room where my art and my music was being taken seriously by serious people. The funny thing about enthusiasm and belief is that they spread. And tho belief is never really total because in this world, what can we really be sure of? But it’s amazing how fast someone else’s belief can grow in you, especially if that person is a living legend.
Also, the laws of the jungle kick in. I wasn’t exaggerating the dire existence I had before this moment and I also was exaggerating it’s life-threatening effect. So not only was this a musical dream come true, a dream I had never dreamed, it was my ticket to a better life. And it’s not as tho I started with no belief. I thought I was good, but just not that good. Or more accurately, deep down I knew I belonged, but I was young and deeply insecure, like most of us are when we are young. So anyway, the week after Recording Week, my belief had grown exponentially and my act of faking like I belonged was becoming more believable, even to me. Others take you seriously and you start taking yourself that way until you actually become something worthy of that attention. Real World helped me grow from minute one and on many different levels. With growth comes growing pains and people there, including Peter, had to accept the swings of my damaged personality and accept them they miraculously did. Not that I was all bad. I could tell I was somehow breathing more light into the place, if for no other reason than their own good karma for helping a potentially talented kid in need. And I’m good for a laugh, at the very least.
I worked with John Leckie, helped out by Ben Findley who engineered and we recorded almost every song I had at the time; solo acoustic with some light production on a few tracks. One that stands out was called “Papa,” which I wrote on Joe’s famous Telecaster while watching him play with his little girl in the green sun of the lavish Real World lawn. By then, I had acquired my own stash of this mysterious hash and learned how to role these ineffectual spliffs that seemed to be all the rage with the English cannibis culture.
One day I asked John if he even felt the effects when he smoked these things. He nodded affirmatively with a smile and I said impatiently, “Well, I don’t. Let’s go down to the kitchen; I have an idea.”.
So we took a break from this “Papa” song and went down there. It was night and we were in the kitchen alone.
I took a pan and a half-stick of butter and lit the flame on the stove until the butter began to bubble. Adjusting the flame to low, I put the rest of my hash in the butter and watched as it melted into a brown goo. The whole kitchen smelled like a Bob Marley fairytale (my audacity astounds me but hey, I was young).
I proceeded to take a piece of bread and rip it in two, lathering on a healthy heap of said brown goo onto each piece, handing John one and without hesitation, we both inhaled my awful creation. Returning to work on the track upstairs, it wasn’t long before things got weird. A ghost flew by. A voice scattered into moths in my brain. The song was stunning and moving and we turned it up loud and speakers both burst into flames. Neither of us moved. The fire wasn’t real but it burned bright and soon I said to John, “I think I need to go to bed.” I overshot the need to get stoned.
Fully hallucinating, I closed my eyes in one those great rooms they have there and the next time I opened them, it was 6 PM the following evening. I shot up out of my bed and darted to the studio, still with the minimum-wage mentality that I might have lost my job due to extreme lateness (our normal start time was noon). When I got there, John was there and I began apologizing profusely until he stopped me, saying he just got here himself and we began to laugh and laugh a lot.
After a few days, my session with John and Ben was over. The label wanted to review the tracks and see if we should keep going with John as producer. I still had nowhere to really be and Real World was introduced to me as a kind of utopian village. It’s hard to believe, but in some way I kind of assumed I could just keep staying there. I don’t really know what was going thru my head, but it wasn’t until the studio manager Owen or someone else told me that I couldn’t actually stay there, reminding me that it was, in fact, a commercial institution that I finally left but I didn’t go back to New York or Atlanta. From there, I went to a new friend’s place in South London. I had just met this friend, Graham, the week before. Graham had crashed the Real World Recording Week, piggy-backing off of the Glastonbury Festival as Joe Strummer had. Some people from that festival had heard about what was happening at Real World and made it their destination after the festival, to keep the festival spirit growing and going, to bring it with them.
Graham and I were fast friends. I had followed a cute girl into the studio. She asked me to play on something and then suddenly there was Graham and he was an instant brother, instant best friend. We remain close to this day and have gone on countless tours together.
When Real World told me firmly but nicely that I had to go, Graham was my first call…. “Come stay with us,” he said… “We have a couch with your name on it.” I jumped at the chance. He even picked me up at the train station. I was lost in London but that’s where the adventure of my adult life really began."
2014-01-01 City Winery, New York, NY, USASET FM 2014-01-16/18 Todos Santos Music Festival, Todos Santos, BCS, Mexico 2014-01-23 McCabe's Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, CA, USASET FM 2014-01-25 2014 NAMM Show / Anaheim C.C., Anaheim, CA, USA 2014-01-30 New York Guitar Festival, New York, NY, USA 2014-03-29 BRIC House, Brooklyn, NY, USASET FM 2014-04-03 Late Show with David LettermanWYCYEAH 2014-04-11 WFUV Rita Houston 20yrs @ City Winery, New York, NY, USAWYCYEAH 2014-04-19 Live @ Drew's, Ringwood, NJ, USA 2014-04-28 Trail 103.3 FM (KDTR) Radio session, Missoula, MT, USAWYCYEAH 2014-04-30 Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA, USA SET FM 2014-05-01 WTMD First Thursdays, Towson, MD, USA 2014-05-06 City Winery, Chicago, IL, USA 2014-05-08 City Winery, New York, NY, USA 2014-05-10 WMNF Tropical Heatwave, Ybor City, FL, USA 2014-05-09 Relix Magazine, New York, NY, USA 2014-05-10 The Sixties Show, 88-5 WMNF Radio, TampaWYCYEAH
2014-05-12 Caffè Lena, Saratoga Springs, NY, USA 2014-05-14 Théâtre Petit Champlain, Québec, QC, Canada 2014-05-16 Cabaret Eastman, Eastman, QC, Canada 2014-05-17 Café culturel de la Chasse-galerie, Lavatrie, QC, Canada 2014-05-18 Rickk's Room, Wentworth-Nord, QC, Canada 2014-05-19 Live @ 5, Radio Woodstock 100.1WYCYEAH
2014-05-21 Disco Grande, Radio 3, RTVE WYCYEAH 2014-05-22 Boite Live, Madrid, Spain SET FM 2014-05-23 Escenario Santander, Santander, Spain 2014-05-24 Cinema Theatre Modelo, Zarautz, Spain SET FM
2014-05-26 Botanique, Brussels, Belgium SET FM 2014-05-27 LeCargo Session, Paris, France WYCYEAH 2014-05-27 Le Trabendo, Paris, France SET FM 2014-05-28 Tivoli, Utrecht, Netherlands SET FM 2014-05-29 Dingwalls, London, UK 2014-06-04 Sonic Boom In-Store, Seattle, WA,USA 2014-06-05 KEXP Radio session, Seattle, WA, USA WYCYEAH 2014-06-05 Columbia City Theater, Seattle, WA, USASET FM 2014-06-06 BING Lounge, KINK Radio, Portland, OR, USA WYCYEAH 2014-06-06Bunk Bar Water, Portland, OR, USA 2014-06-07 Music Millenium In-store, Portland, OR, USA 2014-06-08 Brick & Mortar, San Francisco, CA, USA 2014-06-10 Acoustic Guitar Magazine Session, L.A, CA, USA 2014-06-10 Troubadour, West Hollywood (L.A.), CA, USA 2014-06-12 Fingerprints Music, Long Beach, CA, USAWYCYEAH 2014-06-13 Lethal Amounts Gallery, L.A, CA, USA 2014-06-25 Chez André at The Standard Hotel, NYC, NY, USA 2014-07-03 Pearl Jam Radio (Guest DJ/acoustic session), Washington, DC, USA 2014-07-17 ARTV Studio, Montreal, Canada 2014-08-26 Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR, USA 2014-08-27 Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR, USA 2014-08-29 Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, BC, CAN 2014-09-05 Virgin Mobile Corona Theatre, Montreal, QC, CAN 2014-09-06 The Drake Hotel, Toronto, ON, CAN 2014-09-09 House Of Blues Cleveland, Cleveland, OH, USA 2014-09-10 St Andrews Hall, Detroit, MI, USA 2014-09-12 Ready Room, St. Louis, MO, USA 2014-09-13 WFPK Members Only Show, Louisville, USA WYCYEAH 2014-09-16 The Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN, USA 2014-09-18 The Beacham, Orlando, FL, USA 2014-09-19 Center Stage Theater, Atlanta, GA, USA 2014-09-20 Civic Theatre, New Orleans, LA, USA WYCYEAH 2014-09-26 MidPoint Music Festival, Cincinnati, OH, USA 2014-09-27 Mr. Smalls Theatre, Millvale, PA, USA 2014-09-30 Royale Boston, Boston, MA, USA 2014-09-30 WERS 88.9, Boston, MA, USA WYCYEAH 2014-10-01 930 Club, Washington, DC, USA 2014-10-03 Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA, USA WYCYEAH 2014-10-05 Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, USA 2014-10-07 Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, NC, USA 2014-10-08 The Orange Peel, Asheville, NC, USA 2014-10-10 93XRT, Chicago, IL, USA 2014-10-10 Metro, Chicago, IL, USA 2014-10-11 First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, USA 2014-10-12 The Current 98.8, Minneapolis, MN, USA 2014-10-13 Collector's edition, 88.1 KDHX, Saint Louis, USA 2014-10-23 The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA, USA 2014-10-24 Belly Up, Solana Beach, CA, USA 2014-10-25 Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, USA 2014-10-27 KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic, Santa Monica, CA, USA WYCYEAH 2014-10-28 Urban Lounge, Salt Lake City, UT, USA 2014-10-29 Bluebird Theater, Denver, CO, USA 2014-10-31 Mowhawk, Austin, TX, USA 2014-11-26 The Tangier, Akron, OH, USA 2014-12-12 Outpost In The Burbs, Montclair, NJ, USA
La mort de Lou Reed a été un séisme pour le monde du rock indépendant ; chez POPnews, on en a profité pour revoir une grande partie de la discographie du chanteur ; chez Joseph Arthur (parrainé en son temps par Lou Reed) , le traumatisme a dû être pas mal aussi, lui qui porte comme des stigmates bien des caractéristiques du chanteur du Velvet Underground : urbain, New-Yorkais même, indépendant, alternant ombre et lumière et chantant sa ville comme son illustre prédécesseur...
Le prolifique Joseph Arthur revient avec ce disque "Lou : The Songs of Lou Reed" et revoit presque entièrement la carrière de Reed : sa période Velvet Underground ("Stephanie Says", "Heroin", "Pale Blue Eyes"), le début très florissant de sa carrière solo ("Satellite of Love", "Walk on the Wild Side", "Men of Good Fortune", ...) jusqu'à "Coney Island Baby" ; la décennie 1976-1989 est (un peu injustement – si l'on consulte la discographie de Lou Reed sur POPnews) délaissée mais Arthur reprend des titres d'albums plus récents comme "New York", "Magic and Loss" ou "Set the Twilight Reeling". En tout, douze titres qui pourraient faire un Best-Of idéal pour le défunt chanteur mais que Joseph Arthur reprend en versions dépouillées, acoustiques, soulignant les mélodies des morceaux sans en affadir le contenu (comme ce "Walk on the Wild Side" aérien, cette version acoustique et pourtant envoûtante d'"Heroin" ou cette relecture très réussie de "Magic and Loss"). Comme souvent chez Joseph Arthur, on est bluffés : par son talent de musicien, par son aisance à s'approprier ces chansons qui ne sont pas les siennes (même si on devine qu'il les a beaucoup écoutées) et – au final - par cet hommage dont chaque chanson est magnifiquement habitée. Sans aucun doute, Joseph Arthur est l'un des plus intéressants héritiers de Lou Reed.
Robin Williams at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California on August 26, 2009.Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images
As the world mourns Robin Williams' suicide earlier this week, an outpouring of remembrances and story-sharing about the Oscar and Grammy-winning actor have filled the web and helped to celebrate the influence he had on so many lives.
Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur is among those touched by Williams' and Wednesday posted a tribute song called "Robin (A Tribute To Robin Williams 1951-2014)" for download and stream. The track is a moving five minutes referencing many of Williams' roles with an accompanying video is made up of his most memorable performances spanning decades, from Mork & Mindy to Good Will Hunting and more.
UPDATE: On Thursday morning (Aug. 14), Arthur released this statement to Billboard about why he penned the song:
"I met Robin once.
I was visiting a girlfriend in Vancouver where they film lots of movies and it was in a dressing room of a spa.
It was just him and me.
My first thought was, oh hey, I know you, and then it dawned on me, oh wait that's Robin Williams.
So I was immediately star struck.
But he noticed a book I had, and we started talking about it
He set me at ease.
Very friendly and unassuming person for the level of fame he had, but I was glad I got to thank him in a way.
When I heard of his passing, it seemed as if the universe must've made a mistake.
He was such a cultural icon, particularly I think for children of the seventies who were mesmerized by Mork and then got to grow up right along with his work and craft.
It's a huge loss for us all and my heart goes out to his family and friends.
Hopefully this tragedy will help change the conversation about the illnesses of addiction and depression. We definitely need a more progressive and tolerant approach. We are fragile beings and life is a blessing.
D Cadd9 The world is in me I am not in the world Of pleasure and pain where you hang hope and fear Desire is the fire burning you in hell Reaching out for nothing, building you a jail oh no Since before the first birth and until the last death
I am the witness, I am, I am the witness I am the witness, I am, I am the witness I am the witness, I am, I am the witness I am the witness, I am, I am the witness
G F D Cadd9 And there is bliss beyond this world of pleasure and pain G F And there is bliss beyond this world of pleasure and pain D Cadd9 And we are one
D7 A7 You take a stand Bm F# On everything you do D7 A7 But if you reach out your hand Bm F# I come to you
G And when you are sad D Remember no one gets it easy G And though it ain't half bad D Still no one's gonna right your wrong A7sus4 D Find you a home A7sus4 C Soften up your heart of stone G Even when you're blue
A7 C I come to you A7 C I come to you A7 C G I come to you
D You never knew your way back home You lost yourself and begin to drown G Inside a cage With photographs and lights of glass And memories of when your style Was all the rage A Working in the diamond mines G The things you lost Down the line D Come creeping back A And when you try to get some sleep G The spirit world has prepared D Its attack
There are some moments in a musical life that are magical. This morning is one of those unexpected moments. A light rain falls in central West Virginia as the blackberries begin to ripen early this year, turning from a brilliant red to that luscious, Mercedes-Benz black, and the mail belatedly brings the new Joseph Arthur album, Lou -- an acoustic tribute to a fellow New Yorker: Lou Reed.
I remember the last time I saw Lou Reed. It was at Birdland, not as a performer but, like me, as an appreciator of one of the finest voices of the past half century: Jimmy Scott. (Scott, incidentally, just passed away.) I had no idea that Lou was in the back as I sat at the bar, and as the first set ended, Jimmy's bass player, Hilliard Greene, invited me over to their small corner. After a few minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I caught Lou strolling over. He did not do the star thing; he was gracious and paid his respects to a man whom he admired a lot. Lou was instrumental in the "re-discovery" of Jimmy some 25 years ago, and led to a new recording contract. He did not play any cards, just a warm hello to Jimmy and Jeanie, a nod to the rest of us, and he was off.
One of my great regrets is never having seen the Velvet Underground. I remember taking a lot of grief from folkies and rockers alike for playing their records. I cannot remember why I got that Velvet Underground record in the first place, and like Dylan, and the Beatles'Revolver, that preceded it, it shook things up, changed the landscape, expectations and what popular music could be. Despite the diversity of the arrangements, those albums had another thing in common: the strength of the songs themselves.
Lou Reed fell into and out of favor over the course of his life, with many of his albums that had been originally derided, having grand second lives. Berlin being the prime example.
Joseph Arthur who has an impressive amount of music and art in his own right, knew Lou Reed and attended his 70th birthday, writing and performing, with Jenni Muldaur, "Happy Birthday Lou":
This album, that contains twelve Lou originals, was a result of Arthur's poem to Lou following his passing -- first published byAmerican Songwriter on October 28, 2013. No, it was not Arthur's idea, but a friend who thought he could get it released as an album. Arthur mulled it over, and began by selecting the right mics, knowing from the start it had to be all acoustic, no drums, letting the songs themselves shine. And if it did not work, then it would be due to his own failure, not Lou's. It helped that he already knew the songs, knew Lou, knew the territory and himself.
Once begun, it did not take long, and Arthur liked the results. However, during that interim, the record deal fell through. He was disappointed, yes, and had some anger, but being satisfied with the recording was his way of saying goodbye to the man while still feeling the spirit, as it were. Then, on Christmas Eve, it was back on, with Vanguard Records picking it up.
famous friends along the coast
the ballad of boogie christ
walk on the wild side
saint of impossible causes
i miss the zoo
honey and the moon
blue lights on the rear view
i used to know how to walk on water
A&R rep/music producer Bill Bentley suggested that Joseph Arthur record a tribute to their mutual friend.
“I thought he meant, ‘Pick a Lou song,’ for a compilation with other artists. But he said, ‘No, do a whole album of your interpretations of Lou’s songs.’ The idea came from Bill,” Arthur explains. “I’m pretty sure it would never have occurred to me. I was interested and intrigued and flattered that he thought I could do it. But it seemed like an outlandish idea: Is it even okay to do that?”
Arthur considered the suggestion further while he toured promoting his own album The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013). “Then I got home from the tour and it was winter, and I was snowed in, in my apartment in New York. At the end of a tour, you’re sort of an emotional wreck. Even if you take care of yourself, it’s draining and you’re a little bit scattered. And then I was snowed in—and I have a recording studio where I live—and I remembered Bill said, ‘When you try to do this, keep it simple.’ That just gave me my way in on it.
“I was by myself,” he continues. “And I just started. The first one I did was ‘Coney Island Baby.’ I put down acoustic guitar and piano and acoustic bass. I didn’t plug anything in. I felt like I’d found an inroad. That simplicity gave the song something that was different from the original, but it was bound to the original and it honored the original.”
For six days, when New York City was buried in snow, Arthur says, “I just lived with Lou. I spent all my time recording.” Arthur made Lou—a full album of spare, tender, haunting Reed covers—in less than a week. “People can undervalue something because it was quick, but it just flowed,” Arthur says. “You can’t take those times in the studio for granted, because it doesn’t always happen like that.”
Arthur used acoustic instruments and two microphones—a Coles ribbon and a Wunder CM67. On each song, he first cut his lead vocal and acoustic guitar together, then added piano, then bass, and finally his own backing vocals. “I’d just move the mics around,” Arthur says. “I’d put the Coles on the guitar body and sing into the Wunder. I have a Steinway grand piano from 1912; I’d put one mic on the low end and the other high.”
Arthur tracked to Pro Tools, running the Wunder through his Chandler Abbey Road TG2 mic pre and the Coles through a Summit pre. “No EQ on anything,” he says. “I kept it really simple, and that’s why it worked. It really put the focus on the song in a clear way, and I thought that was a valid thing to do.”
Arthur created his own mixes, and sent the files to Gavin Lurssen in L.A. to be mastered. “Mastering sessions can be like when you turn your term paper in to the teacher. Usually you’re going to get a couple of red marks and maybe even a slap on the wrist,” Arthur says. “I thought for sure it would happen on this, because on some of the rough mixes, I hadn’t even put a master fader on the Pro Tools session. I didn’t know if those mixes might be clipping a little bit. I was nervous.”
“Joseph was very close to this project,” Lurssen says. “I realized he was worried about what sort of comments I’d send back, but I found it to be very special. What he captured with very minimal tools was a very organic and sweet-sounding.”
Lurssen, who always masters in the analog domain, converted the files and brought to the project his usual philosophy of transparency. “There can never be a veil between the listener and the recording,” Lurssen says. “The most successful I can be in my job is to make it sound like I was never there.”
In the case of Lou, the most essential element to emphasize was Arthur’s vocal and what Lurssen calls the artist’s “quiet confidence,” a quality that Reed possessed as well.
“These guys are both storytellers,” Lurssen says. “We needed to make sure the listener focuses on the vocal performances, and the acoustic sounds supporting those vocals. That meant nothing oversaturated, nothing overcooked.
“Once we found a zone, we approached it song-by-song, but we also kept a global vision in mind as we got all the songs onto one canvas,” Lurssen continues. “One of the key elements was a Fairchild 670 that belongs to a rental company called Design FX; they maintain it and it’s completely dialed to integrate with our chain.
“I also used an EAR tube equalizer in combination with a GML 9000. So when I go for the solid-state EQ, I can get a little bit of lift into the music while having the tube saturation from the EAR, in addition to what the Fairchild gives me.
“At the end of the day, what’s important to me is what’s important for Joseph—to maintain best practices that give listeners a beautiful experience.”
“For Gavin to give the album such a good sonic ‘grade,’ for lack of a better term, was inspiring to me,” Arthur says. “It made me realize that when the material is as strong as Lou’s songs are, you can keep it really simple. I think Lou was one of the greatest songwriters that we’ve had. When you keep it really simple, you accentuate that all the more.”
The best tribute to Lou Reed is this album by Joseph Arthur
Amere seven months since his death on Oct. 23, 2013 at the age of 71, Lou Reed has received a magnificently fitting musical tribute that is unlikely to be surpassed in the coming years. The album, titled simply Lou, comes from Joseph Arthur, one of the most gifted, passionate, and prolific singer-songwriters working today. His 2011 release, The Graduation Ceremony, was filled with moments of delicate, exquisite beauty, while The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013) and The Ballad of Boogie Christ Act II (2014) displayed conceptual and artistic ambition that one rarely hears in pop music today. Arthur deploys all of his many talents on Lou, and the results are impressive.
At his best, Reed was an exceptional lyricist, savagely chronicling a range of urban outcasts, misfits, and addicts. His observations were often shot through with a raw, undigested rage and sadness that could be powerfully intense. Musically, though, Reed was extremely limited, with a voice barely capable of carrying a tune, and a tendency to favor arrangements that foregrounded electric guitar playing that could charitably be described as rudimentary.
Arthur has gone with sublimely stark arrangements for Lou — to extraordinary effect. By placing 12 of Reed's finest songs in a radically different context, Arthur re-imagines them from the ground up, accompanying his lightly distressed baritone with delicately strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitar, restrained piano chords, elegant electric bass, and his own multi-tracked falsetto harmonies. (No drums or percussion.) The focus throughout is on spare but lovely vocal melodies that Reed's own substandard singing could only hint at in the original recordings.
The result is haunting and transformative. Familiar Reed classics — "Walk on the Wild Side," "Heroin," "Satellite of Love," "Pale Blue Eyes" — sound completely new. Meanwhile, comparatively obscure songs — "Sword of Damocles," "Caroline Says," "NYC Man," "Men of Good Fortune," "Wild Child," "Coney Island Baby" — become impossibly overlooked classics.
And then there's "Dirty Blvd.," a surprise hit from Reed's excellent 1989 New York album. The original was Reed at his most commercial: upbeat, punchy, and tautly syncopated, with a hooky rhythm-guitar riff repeated incessantly through the chorus. The downcast lyrics, drawing a portrait of stark urban inequalities through the story of an impoverished kid named Pedro whose father beats him "because he's too tired to beg," were undercut by the jaunty arrangement and Reed's own inevitably deadpan vocal.
Arthur's version is a revelation. The rhythmic structure of the song's basic three-chord progression remains unchanged, but the atmosphere has become hushed and mournful, like a mid-tempo folk hymn, allowing the lyrics to stand out in razor-sharp relief, slicing through talk-sung melody with a chilling power. We hear about Pedro's nine brothers and sisters, and the despair that suffuses their lives — all while movie stars arrive by limousine at Lincoln Center just after passing a small kid standing at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel "selling plastic roses for a buck."
Twenty-five years after the song was first recorded, deep into a new Gilded Age marked by even starker inequalities, Reed's angry indictment at the mid-point of the song hits like a live wire: "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll spit on 'em / That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death / And get it over with and dump 'em on the boulevard."
By the song's end, indignation has given way to wistful yearning, with Pedro finding a book of magic in a garbage can and attempting a trick that would allow him an escape from hopelessness: "'At the count of 3,' he says, 'I hope I can disappear / And fly fly away / From this dirty boulevard / I want to fly.'" The longing for magical transport away from misery and squalor, repeated over and over like a prayer of desolation, with Arthur slightly varying the melody each time and harmonizing with himself, is incredibly moving.
It's a great song, by an underappreciated songwriter, transfigured by one of our foremost contemporary musical talents.