A few years ago, a bunch of Andy Warhol prints made their way to the Czech Museum here in Cedar Rapids (Warhol was of Czechoslovakian decent) and it provided a rare opportunity to come face to face with some of his work.
The only trouble was, the weekend of the exhibit I had to watch over my son while the wife was working. I don’t know how many of you have spent time with three-year olds, but there is no comprehension to someone of that age that looking at pieces of art qualifies as fun and that part of that “fun” would require being stationary for short periods of time, quietly reflecting on individual pieces and admiring their beauty and technique.
We lasted about fifteen minutes.
The rest of our hour-long journey was spent chasing him through the Czechoslovakian heritage exhibits, scolding him for hiding in the museum’s coat racks, and apologizing to the security personnel for letting my son interrogate them on their name and position at the museum.
Of course, I should have expected this behavior, and of course, I did. It was just one of those exceptional moments that I couldn’t just pass up because of my son’s inability to understand how we are supposed to act in certain environments.
Just like I should expect anything new in an album involving Dean Wareham. The man has made an entire career out of utilizing the blueprint of the Velvet Underground—particularly the quiet dynamics of that band’s third album—with such honest accuracy it once caused Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine to award Galaxie 500‘s first three records with one star each, calling the band “pointless and self indulgent” and questioning Wareham’s pitch.
The irony is that Wareham and the rest of the band were essentially out Lou Reed-ing Lou Reed at that point and, much to Considine’s chagrin I’m sure, fueling an entirely new genre (slow-core) of like-minded worshippers and slow tempo devotees.
In fact, Wareham’s stoic loyalty to the craft of the Velvet Underground prompted the Andy Warhol Museum to commission him to set Warhol’s infamous screen tests from the 60s, incorporating original scores to the silent films. What was Lou Reed doing? Putting together a second look at the one album that doesn’t require another glance, Metal Machine Music.
Dean and Britta’s 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests is a no-brainer for any Galaxie 500, Luna, or Velvet Underground fan. It may be less ornately arranged than Wareham’s prior work (including the lush arrangements of Dean and Britta’s previous releases), but it is by no means a throwaway or a collection of demos haphazardly put together as a cheap tie in to the pop art icon.
It’s been respectfully considered by Dean and Britta to the point where it far surpasses the creative energy that Warhol put forth for the screen tests themselves.
The pair dip into the Luna catalog for “Teenage Lightening,” used for the screen test of hunky Paul America, a perfect choice for the crumbling beauty who later tried to reconnect with his old Factory director during one of the lowest points in his life, only to face the coldness Warhol’s “do not accept calls from” list.
Britta Phillips gets the Autotune treatment on “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a beautiful rendition of the Bob Dylan song that successfully incorporates that irritating piece of technology with a gently strummed acoustic guitar. They used this track for Nico‘s screen test, a smart nod to Nico’s own cover of the song on Chelsea Girl.
The best moments of 13 Most Beautiful—or at least the most aurally exciting—come with the bonus disc which features some great remixes, including a few by Sonic Boom. The former Spacemen 3 member eloquently places his notorious drones over the duo’s own beautiful minimalism.
You’ll get no arguments from me if you want to start here with your own examination, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can (and probably should) get the full audio/video treatment of these performances with the Plexifilm DVD version of 13 Most Beautiful released last year. It features these performances set to the actual screen tests, a behind the scenes of the pair creating the soundtrack, an interview with Dean and Britta, and an informative booklet.
And for the completely obsessive collector, there’s also a hardcover book by Callie Angel which digs a bit deeper and provides countless photographs of this fascinating period of Warhol’s career.
But regardless of which format you choose, it’s definitely best appreciated without the distraction of a three-year-old whose only idea of pop art is the mustache you get after drinking an Orange Crush soda.