Joseph Arthur. Lou.
Vanguard, 2014. Joseph Arthur: http://www.josepharthur.com/
Joseph Arthur has become quite a successful singer-songwriter, having put out ten (now eleven) studio albums and innumerable EPs since the late 1990s. Born and raised in Akron, he left to find his musical fortune and got “discovered” by Peter Gabriel, who helped him get out his first album. Lou Reed and Arthur somehow became friends early on, and clearly Reed was both a source of encouragement and inspiration in his career. In late 2013, after Reed’s death, a guy at Vanguard Records suggested that he put together this tribute. He did. Here it is.
How do you create a tribute to an artist who has been such a major force in music? Replicate his songs? What’s the point? Get a big group of stars together? Overblown. Arthur chose neither of these routes, opting for a stripped-down acoustic solo effort, where he would interpret some of his favorite Reed songs in his own style but not stray too far from the source. This was both a tasteful and smart choice. He chose some songs from every phase of Reed’s career, from the early Velvet Underground days to later material. Arthur has a feel for these songs, although he may not have lived them quite the way Reed himself did (wouldn’t wish that on anybody). He’s not a great singer, but he is better than Reed, who sometimes buried beautiful melodies in a less than adequate voice (check “Satellite of Love” as one example). Simple accompaniment, with either guitar or piano, works to great effect.
How does anyone do “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Dirty Blvd.” or, dear lord, “Heroin” without doing a pale imitation? Reed may not have been the best singer but he was a master of stark effect, and these were his songs, his life. The results for Arthur vary a bit, although in all cases his interpretations work well. He does a creditable job with “Walk on the Wild Side,” as good as anyone is likely to do. “Heroin” is taken a little faster than I’d like (there’s that stark effect thing), but Arthur brings out the melody in a way that I didn’t hear in the Velvets version (but was present on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal). Arthur does a riveting job on the talking blues of “Dirty Blvd.,” one of Reed’s most cynical and damning of songs. Other tunes that I found particularly well-presented include “Magic and Loss,” with a steely-strength power, and “Wild Child,” where he brings out the beautiful melody in the midst of heartbreaking lyrics. All the songs are worth hearing in Arthur’s interpretations.
So, Joseph Arthur has created another winning album, this one out of the loss and mourning of his friend, and one that does them both credit. Reed’s powerful songs interpreted by Arthur’s talents result in a fine tribute that is both imaginative and tasteful.
Personnel: Joseph Arthur (vocals, guitar, piano).
Tracks: Walk on the Wild Side, Sword of Damocles, Stephanie Says, Heroin, NYC Man, Satellite of Love, Dirty Blvd., Pale Blue Eyes, Magic and Loss, Men of Good Fortune, Wild Child, Coney Island Baby.