Innocent & Vain: An Introduction to Nico

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Throughout her lifetime, Nico released just six studio albums, each of them on a different record label. Add to that a dozen or so further live and "rarities" collections, and a couple of one-off singles, and the problems facing any attempt to truly anthologize her career should be obvious to all. Still it is difficult to accept Innocent & Vain as anything but an incredibly slapdash effort, not only because it visits just two of those albums, but also because it does not even make the slightest attempt to bridge the vast stylistic gaps that divide that pair. 1967's Chelsea Girl, her first solo set after leaving the Velvet Underground (who are also featured here, with two tracks), and 1974's The End could scarcely be more different -- one was driven by acoustic guitars, strings, and flutes, with producer Tom Wilson the most noticeable outside presence; the other was dark harmonium drones, John Cale's electric viola, and Eno's savage electronics. Listened to in isolation, it is hard to believe they were even recorded by the same person. This album expects us to accept them on the same disc. There is no faulting the selections themselves, though: "It Was a Pleasure Then," from the earlier album, is the Velvets by proxy; "Femme Fatale" and the alternate single mix of "All Tomorrow's Parties" are the real thing. But the one song from her debut that might have pointed towards Nico's future, the title track, is absent here, leaving listeners to instead pick their way through a lengthy live rendering of the Doors' "The End," performed by voice and drone alone, while still trying to recover from the half-dozen other jarring juxtapositions that comprise this set. True, the bulk of Chelsea Girl's inclusions are Lou Reed compositions (joining Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, John Cale, and Jim Morrison among the other credits), but that was surely a commercial consideration rather than a musical one, because the journey from "Valley of the Kings" to "Femme Fatale" is one that even the "shuffle" control on your mp3 player would think twice about making, and "Secret Side" to "Little Sister" isn't much easier. A very unrewarding collection, then, and a very misleading one as well. We continue to await the box set that will truly tell her remarkable story.

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