Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nico - The Marble Index (1969)

Happy October everybody! It's my favorite month and my favorite holiday, Halloween, is just around the corner. Consequently, I'm going to dedicate this month to reviewing "scary" music, so maybe you'll get some ideas for a nifty Halloween playlist.

Nico is, of course, mostly known for her vocal contributions to the first Velvet Underground album, but few people kept track of her after she left the band. Her first solo album was a pleasant, but hardly groundbreaking affair, filled with folky songs by Lou Reed and Jackson Browne, as well as a forgotten Bob Dylan gem. It's a good record, but in no way prepared listeners for what was to come.

On "The Marble Index" Nico started writing her own songs. She hired John Cale to produce and went into the studio armed only with her own voice and an old harmonium she had somehow acquired. The result was a set of terrifyingly bleak, avant garde pieces comprised mainly of the drone of her voice, the drone of her harmonium and the drone of Cale's viola. It's hard to understand the inspiration for such a strange transition. The style of the music here seems to come out of nowhere, and it really sounds like nothing else. Maybe if you had been in Germany's Black Forest in the twelfth century, you might have heard some Grimm's fairy tale witches chanting something like this, but apart from that I'm at a loss.

Elements of medieval music are certainly present, and I have long contended that "The Marble Index" is the first Goth record. From the funereal quality of the music to Nico's perpetually blonde hair being dyed black for the cover, I'm sure that legions of depressed, black clad, clove cigarette smoking teenagers were deeply inspired by this. Unfortunately, most of the music they would end up churning out pales in comparison to the original.

Cale's production is worthy of mention. He's smart enough not to try to polish up the raw edges of these songs too much, letting his avant garde credentials take over and stepping in only to add some gloomy piano and percussion effects. The overall quality of the sound is somewhat murky and muted, and this indistinctness add to to the mysterious, frightening atmosphere. I dare anyone to listen to "Facing the Wind" in the dark and not get the chills.

Nico's next album, "Desertshore" is just as good, but she was never again as raw and confrontational as she is here. This is a stunningly original record and although it's not the most accessible album ever, in my view every music lover owes it to themselves to check it out.

1 comment:

  1. If you haven't yet, try to acquire THE FROZEN BORDERLINE. It's a two-disc remastered set, featuring THE MARBLE INDEX and DESERTSHORE sounding better than ever. Each also has a ton of bonus tracks (including the full arrangement of "Nibelungen"!). Trust me, for the sound quality alone, it's a must.

    As for the review, you nailed it. This is one of those rare examples of something being absolutely gloomy yet uniquely beautiful.