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Lou Reed 

NYC Man: The Collection

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Maybe it's wrong to suggest that Lou Reed isn't much of a musician. After all, he's successfully played the role of an attitudinal rock star since founding cult band the Velvet Underground in 1965, and has written some of the classic pop hooks of all time ("Walk on the Wild Side," "Sweet Jane," "I'm Waiting for the Man"). But he can't really sing and he knows only a few basic chords on the guitar. Plus, his simple songs can be boring, clichéd, and downright goofy ("Shooting Star," "Vicious," "Legendary Hearts"). Yet it's abundantly clear on the beautifully remastered 31-track, two-CD retrospective NYC Man: The Collection that Reed's best music still matters.

From gritty real-life portraits of self-destruction in his early days ("Street Hassle") to mature reflections on death and dying ("Magic and Loss -- The Summation"), the singer approaches the subject matter of his tunes with unflinching honesty. "I'm not lying," he says in the liner notes. "Everybody knows that about me. Mine is as straight as it goes. For better or for worse, there it is." Which is precisely what attracts (or repels) listeners.

As Reed has transformed over the years from an experimental songwriter and arch provocateur ("I Wanna Be Black," "Heroin," "Kill Your Sons") to a mainstream -- though more conscious than most -- middle-aged performer, his audience has grown in kind. In the bleary days when the Velvets were the dark-side darlings of Andy Warhol's Factory crew, only a coterie of hipster transgressives made the scene. Now Reed appears on high-profile stages that also host the Go-Go's, Chris Isaak, and Hall & Oates. Frightening as this sounds, it isn't entirely unreasonable; Reed is a man of mixed emotions, and some of the more memorable titles of his distant past ("Pale Blue Eyes," "Perfect Day") are genuinely moving ballads with melodies your grandmother could swoon to. Perhaps Reed's untidy mix of candor, simplicity, and deep feeling is precisely what it takes to propel the few-chord vamps of rock 'n' roll to the level of art. -- Sam Prestianni

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