From the boho theatricality of Berlin to the Warhol remembrance Songs for Drella, Lou Reed has never shirked from making concept albums. But translating his theater piece POEtry (a sort of Edgar Allan Poe tribute with original songs and readings from works like “The Telltale Heart”) to a new album called The Raven calls for more than a commitment to big ideas: He needed to give the play a new life of its own.
Puzzlingly, Reed doesn’t seem to have grasped this simple idea on The Raven; the recitations of Poe’s verse by familiar voices such as Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi on this very long two-CD set feel uncompelling, without context, and eminently skippable. The music Reed composed to accompany the actorsusually a low guitar hum that feels like the “Black Angel’s Death Song” channeled through a Jivamukti classdoesn’t help, either.
Reed coaxes great performances out of a few unexpected collaboratorsOrnette Coleman delivers frenetic sax playing on “Guilty,” and downtown singer Antony warbles in a truly otherworldly soprano on “The Bed”but these players are crowded out by the album’s sprawling mediocrity.
The greater disappointment of The Raven, however, is the literalness of Reed’s lyrics, particularly this bit from a song called “Edgar Allan Poe”: “These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe,” Reed growls, “not exactly the boy next door / He’ll tell you tales of horror / Then he’ll play with your mind / If you haven’t heard of him / You must be deaf or blind.” It’s an unbearably corny turn of phrase one would never expect from New York’s storied sultan of sin.
Named for an obscure tune known mostly to D.J.’s from an unknown San Antonio–based multiracial funk band, Iron Leg should feel marginal. But like a surprisingly large number of compilations of forgotten jazz, soul, and funk singles assembled by D.J.’s, Iron Leg (from the always able curator DJ Shadow) is revelatory and door-openingly great. Mickey and the Soul Generation’s music can seem perfunctory and hooklessthere’s nothing to bring you in like the JB’s “Pass the Peas”but there is something more joyous and less mechanical about it than the disciplined funk of the Meters and the JB’s. And when the huge, almost wide-screen-sounding horn section kicks in, it’s party music with few peers.