Lately I can’t stop listening to the new Beach House album, Devotion (from Baltimore-based Carpark Records). Far more sophisticated than their self-titled first LP, it deserves every point of that 8.5 rating Pitchfork fawningly gave it last week. It’s unusual that I will I side with a more polished album over the basement-tapes sound (I’m a Slanted and Enchanted girl; not a Brighten the Corners one), but when it comes to melancholia as channeled by an organ and a ghostly vocalist, the crisper sound and less obtuse songwriting is a pleasure to hear. Devotion is like listening to a whimsical circus slowed down to a funeral march while drinking hot cocoa.
Video for Heart of Chambers
And I can’t stop thinking of Nico when I listen to Beach House. It’s easy to call lead singer Victoria Legrand a cross between Nico and Hope Sandoval (of Mazzy Star). Beach House’s almost moribund vocal stylings, cavernous atmospherics, medieval undertones, and simplistic, stark percussion are indebted to the Nico and her producer John Cale (the other Velvet Underground genius).
Born Christa Päffgen, Nico was raised amid the hell of WWII Germany and her haunting singing/speaking voice echoes those horrors. Statuesque and icily beautiful, as a young adult she recorded with Serge Gainbourg and Jimmy Page, had a child with French cinema superstar Alain Delon, modeled all over Europe and had a bit part in La Dolce Vita. And that was all before she became the Warhol Super Star/Velvet Underground singer she is perhaps most famous for. Reed didn’t let her sing much on the Velvet Underground and Nico, but the tracks she does appear on are some of the most haunting and beautiful (“All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) of all the many revolutionary songs VU put out.
Nico in the 60’s
Nico was the quintessential muse of the 60’s pre-psych happenings. Although Reed ousted her from the Velvet Underground, by 1969 she accrued enough songs from various lovers (including Dylan, Sterling Morrison, Jackson Brown and even Reed) that she could record a full LP, Chelsea Girls.
As much as we all love Chelsea Girls (me, Wes Anderson, Aurevoir Simone and most every sad visual arts undergrad included), very little of it is indicative of the Nico’s own musical choices, except, perhaps “It was a Pleasure Then.” But like her contemporary Marianne Faithful, once she broke free from the hot girl singer schtick, she became someone and something utterly original in music.
Nico and John Cale performing in the 70’s
Post-Warhol, post Dylan, Nico ditched pop and took up medivial and classical music on her second album The Marble Index. She also adopted a decidedly unattractive look—poker straight brown hair, heavy black eyeliner, baggy black clothes. By the mid-decade she had put out two more brutally stark albums with Cale, albums she primarily directed: Desertshore (1970) and The End (1974). She doesn’t sing as much as chant on them, while minimal percussion and harmonium (which became her signature instrument) replace conventional melody.
She also worked as an actress again, but this time with the extraordinary director Philippe Garell, who was her partner for the entire decade as well. She reinvented herself once again when she left Garell and came to NYC, where she was embraced by the CBGB’s scene in the early 80’s. Sadly, she also became more and more addicted to heroin. She died from a head injury in 1988.
Everyone from Joy Division to Bjork (not to mention the entire freak folk movement) are a little indebted to Nico and Cale, including Beach House. So here’s to Nico.