Nico :The Classic Years

The Classic Years
Polygram Chronicles

THAT THE MYSTIQUE of mournful pan-European chanteuse Nico has stood up to years of historical and critical fanny-whacking is little surprise. That her music has been shamefully underrated, even less so. Frankly, there was no reason for her music to be any good at all. Aloof, rich, and cute, Nico coasted through the first 30 years of her life, much like her late-'60s handler, the homely Leonard Cohen. Some might argue that her relationship with Andy Warhol and his multifarious Co. is an argument for her worth, but we shouldn't forget that Warhol rarely wasted his time on you if he felt that you weren't worthless.

The world has always been filled with people who are certain they have something to say based on the height of their cheekbones and the fullness of their lips. But though someone else's self-expression can be an awful thing to experience, the results of her efforts, as this reasonably chosen compilation (spanning 1965-1974) reveals, were more than worthy. How could someone who is truly this bad a singer be so good? Or honestly moving? Some theories: She understood the self-reflecting quality in allegedly extroverted pop music, and could personalize the most outer-directed songs (Lou Reed must have realized this with "I'll Be Your Mirror," which is included here with her three other Velvets leads).

Throughout The Classic Years, her voice is flat and musty like a hotel room Bible, just the kind of thing one can get caught up in on slow, long nights. Chelsea Girls (mostly composed by Reed and Cale) shines as an awkward chamber-pop period piece. But 1969's The Marble Index, created in collaboration with Cale (recently split from Reed) is essentially minimalist (à la La Monte Young), which works on the listener the same way. It is barely pop, a lasting effort.

As Can's Holger Czukay, another seminal and anti-soulful German, once told me, "only from unemotional music will we get emotion." But today Index (represented here by three songs and an outtake) is a touchstone of the recent Chicago school typified by Tortoise and Gastr Del Sol. Drumless and steeped in Nico's harmonium, Index is eerie, quiet, and sexual. And in a way, it's as good as any album the Velvets ever recorded, yet it remains little known (although still available). She followed Cale through two more excellent, if lesser, albums in a similar vein (each gets three songs here), and then her career was over much too soon.

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